Analysis: New Caledonia Restricts Democratic Voting to Long-Term Residents

ANALYSIS: A United Nations convoy has been deployed to the Pacific Island of New Caledonia following strong debate over who should be allowed to vote in the nation’s upcoming provincial elections.

The UN says the objective of the visit is to monitor, “New Caledonia’s provincials’ electoral process, especially the technical issues related to the electoral lists for the provincial elections in May, as well as to uphold the spirit of and letter of the 1998Nouméa Accord in this process.”

The elections, which will be held on May 11, will restrict the rights of voting to long-term residents of the island. It’s this interpretation of the voting rules in New Caledonia which is causing problems.

Grave Implications of the Nouméa Accord

Signed in 1998, the Nouméa Accord grants political power to the original population — the Kanaks — and New Caledonia, until the people of the country vote in a referendum on whether to remain under French government control or to choose to become independent. The referendum must be held anytime between 2014 and 2018. Until the country chooses, France continues to control the military, police, currency and foreign affairs.

The Nouméa Accord has been the backbone of the country’s politics and laws since the 1980s, when it descended into chaos and bloody protest after taking on several different political statuses. The agreement, signed by French and New Caledonian officials, set a 20-year plan for peace and independence from the European country. The discontent of the French power in the island cumulated when 27 members of the Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front were taken hostage on the New Caledonian Island of Ouvéa in 1988. The group took several military heads and judges hostage and demanded immediate independence from France — something that the French government refused.

The Nouméa Accord states that only people who were New Caledonian residents before 1998 are allowed to vote. This law was placed in the new 2007 constitution. Now, this is the first election in the country where this law comes into effect.

Scope of Amending  the Nouméa Accord

There have been huge committees that have been set up to ask the question, ‘why can’t it change?’ and to do something about it. These committees included representatives from New Caledonian political parties and even magistrates from France’s high court. The Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front chose to go to court to sue, following findings from the multiple committees that there was no basis to clear anyone’s name from the electoral roll.

The Front largely failed in their attempt to remove names from the list in Nouméa, the capital, which was their main goal. However, in the northern province of Kone, the results were quite the opposite. In that area, the tribunal dealing with the case demanded that many names of the people that the Front put forward should, in fact, not be allowed to vote. 

Different Findings in Different Regions

The two different regions had two different cases because electoral roles are handled by local governments. In Nouméa, the tribunal found that the Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front could not prove that residents were in the country after 1998, or that the person wasn’t enrolled properly. However, in Kone, the Front did not have to prove this. One scholar says they were denied relevant records access, which also hindered the case. The inconsistency could mean that a person will not be allowed to have their say in who runs the country because of where they live.

Possibility of Unfair Elections

The next elections are on May 11, so there isn’t time for the appropriate parties to get a final answer. It is very likely that France’s highest court will see an appeal from both sides of the debate,  but this case will not be seen to for months. This means that the results of the upcoming election could be challenged, if the French courts find that what is happening is indeed unfair.

There are arguments from other sides of the debate that say the Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front is putting 25 years of peace on the small island at risk by challenging the decision. However, the party argues that the Nouméa Accord was only signed by all parties because they wanted to ensure that the Kanaks, the native people, would not become minorities on their homeland.

From the Eyes of the Law 

The Opposition argues that every resident has the right to vote regardless of when they came to the island. The neighbouring nation of Australia was in a similar state before it’s Federation in 1901. Before its own parliament was established, it was under British rule and law. The British believed it was right to pull out of the country and let people live their own way as an independent nation. The question has to be asked though: where do you draw the line? Currently, residents who are living in New Caledonia for 16 years can vote. But that will become 17 years next year and 18 the next. It keeps getting longer and longer, meaning less and less people can vote, leaving a few people to make decisions for the entire nation, which can hardly be called a democracy.

This post was originally published on April 27, 2014. 

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