Palm-fringed indecision: Votes loom on the future of New Caledonia and Bougainville (The Economist – April 6, 2017)

The first Pacific island may choose to stay part of France, but the second could split from Papua New Guinea

IT HAS been six years since the birth of the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, in 2011. It may soon have some younger siblings. The Pacific island of New Caledonia is due to hold a referendum on independence from France by November next year; Bougainville, 1,200 miles to the north (see map), is supposed to vote on separation from Papua New Guinea in 2019.

The timing of the two referendums was fixed decades ago, to defuse long-festering conflicts. But the approach of the appointed time is raising tricky questions about how to word the question on the ballot, who should have the right to vote and what to do once the results are in.

New Caledonia’s secessionist uprising ended in 1988 when leaders of the indigenous Kanaks and French loyalist politicians agreed to hold a vote on independence a decade later. When that deadline arrived, the two sides approved a further delay of 15-20 years. They also agreed to share power in the local government and to try to bring about an economic ré-équilibrage (rebalancing) to lift predominantly Kanak regions.

New Caledonia has a population of 269,000. Kanaks account for 39%; Europeans for 27%; other Pacific or Asian ethnicities and people of mixed race make up the remainder.
Most Kanaks are thought to lean towards independence; most Europeans, towards the status quo. The electoral roll for the referendum will not include those who arrived in the territory after 1998. That excludes many of the European métros who come and go from mainland France on short-term contracts.

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