TAU at the crossroads

07.02.2005: Lorenz Gonschor, Honolulu

What is at stake in this election is the future direction of French Polynesia (Tahiti): Will France’s "overseas territory” continue to be ruled by an authoritarian, corrupted pro-French oligarchy, or will it take a new path of pluralism, democracy and social justice, slowly moving towards self-determination and independence, as it had briefly experienced during four months last year?

For the first time in their country’s history, the Maohi (French Polynesian) people seem to have a relatively fair choice between those two options. While the former is represented by Gaston Flosse, French Polynesia’s current president, the latter is championed by Oscar Temaru, long-term leader of the country’s independence movement, who was elected president in last year’s general elections.

After four months of Taui ("change” in Tahitian, the term has become the motto of Temaru and his followers), Flosse was able to make one of the governing coalition’s members change sides, thus overthrowing Temaru’s government in a motion of no confidence on October 9.

Since then the country has experienced a period of turmoil and instability. Supported by the French government and the local French authorities, Flosse has regained the presidency (although the legitimacy of his takeover remains contested). Temaru’s followers responded with the largest protest march in the territory’s history — more than 22,000 participants, collected 43,000 signatures calling for the immediate dissolution of the assembly and fresh elections and occupied various government buildings in Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital.

The two main protagonists in this struggle are the antithesis of each other: Gaston Flosse, 73, was born on the isolated outer island of Mangareva to a French father and a Polynesian mother. After moving to Tahiti, he worked as a schoolteacher and soon became associated with some of the leading part-Tahitian families of Papeete’s business establishment. Entrusted by some of these leaders, he quickly rose to a prominent position in both politics and business. Systematically, France and the local establishment formed him to serve their interests and fight popular anti-nuclear and anti-colonial movements.

Crucial to his career was his personal friendship with leading French right-wing politician Jacques Chirac, now France’s president. Since 1982, Flosse has almost continuously been the head of the autonomous local government. While often giving the impression of simply being a French puppet, Flosse also has his own agenda. In order to obtain votes from the traditionally anti-French lower classes as well, he developed a pseudo-nationalist discourse, preferring to call the country Tahiti Nui (Greater Tahiti) and creating "national” symbols like a flag, an anthem and an order of merit.

In recent years, this pseudo-nationalism has been underlined by wasteful public spending for oversized prestige projects, like a huge presidential palace, a presidential airplane, and many other symbols of the government’s power and wealth. None of these symbols are truly Polynesian, however, and in spite of al his talk about local identity, Flosse is essentially a professional French politician.

Temaru, on the other hand, has never tried to become part of the colonial establishment. Born in the poor suburb of Faa’a in 1944, he worked most of his life as a customs officer and dedicated his leisure time to the political struggle for the liberation of his people. In 1977, he founded the Liberation Front of Polynesia, later called the People’s Servant for the Land of the Maohi, Tahiti’s largest pro-independence party and the only serious political alternative to Flosse.

In 1983, Temaru became mayor of Faa’a, a position he holds to this day. During the time of nuclear testing, the anti-nuclear independence activists suffered much oppression from the French government as well as hatred from the local establishment. At one time, Temaru barely escaped an assassination attempt. Not impressed by such threats, he continued his way.

Temaru is in no way ignorant of the outside world. A New Zealand citizen, as well as French, and fluent in English, his international orientation is actually more Anglo-Saxon than Francophone. Unlike Flosse, who relies on a single link to the power centre of Paris, Temaru built up friendships with various Pacific Island leaders.

While Flosse impresses Pacific Island leaders only with his large cheque book, Temaru is greeted as a brother by virtually all Pacific leaders. When he attended the annual meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Apia, Samoa last August as the president of French Polynesia, the country was granted observer status, which is what Flosse always asked for, but never managed to obtain.

An air of change was also felt at home in Tahiti during Temaru’s four months of rule. Reducing wasteful government expenditures and abolishing Western-style protocol, Temaru’s government began replacing the technocratic French administrative style with the simplicity of the "Pacific Way”, a move heavily criticised by Flosse as "political amateurism”.

More worrisome for Flosse, his followers and his Paris friends, however, was another of Temaru’s steps: A renowned French firm was entrusted with a financial audit of the country; an effort that would have certainly uncovered many financial irregularities during Flosse’s almost 20-year reign. Before this could happen, however, Flosse made his "legal coup” and regained power.

While both Flosse’s People’s Rally party and Temaru’s government coalition unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a way out of the crisis brought on by the vote of no confidence, on November 15 the French State Council (France’s highest administrative court) decided that a complaint filed by Flosse after the May elections was justified, on the grounds that the curtains of the polling booths in the municipality of Mahina had the colour of the party of that town’s mayor, who is part of Temaru’s coalition.

According to the court’s ruling, those coloured curtains could have influenced the voters, and therefore the election in the Windward Islands constituency (where Mahina is situated) were declared null and void, and a by-election was called for February 13.

This court ruling is obviously ridiculous. Decorating polling stations in the colour of the respective mayor’s political party is a common phenomenon in French Polynesia, and if the French state considers that an interference in the voting process, it should have either outlawed this practice before the elections or declared all election results invalid, not only in one constituency. But as the State Council’s decisions cannot be appealed, Tahitian politicians have to follow it and prepare for the scheduled by-election. Meanwhile, Temaru’s followers keep occupying the presidential palace, arguing that they will only leave if a legally and democratically elected new president moves in.

French Polynesia has a unique voting system, dividing the country in six constituencies, of which one, the Windward Islands (Tahiti and Moorea), comprises more than two-thirds of the country’s population of about 250,000. Accordingly, 37 assembly members out of a total of 57 are elected from that constituency. This makes the upcoming "by-election” almost as important as a general election in all constituencies.

The peculiarity of the voting system, however, is the one-third-of-seats bonus for the party with the highest number of votes. The leading party thus receives 12 out of the 37 seats in the constituency, no matter what size its percentage is, while the other 25 are then distributed proportionally to all parties. This unusual system, written into law early in 2004, was designed by Flosse and his Paris friends in order to secure him a large majority in the assembly even if his percentage of votes went down.

Ironically, however, this backfired last year with Temaru’s coalition arriving slightly ahead of Flosse’s party in the Windward Islands and thus profiting from the majority bonus. Based on this election system, the stakes are particularly high in the upcoming election: If the People’s Rally party leads even by one single vote, it will obtain not a two-thirds majority in the assembly, given that it already holds a majority of 17, from 20 of the members from the outer islands.

That of course would mean a development towards de-facto one-party rule and only intensify the corrupted system already in place. On the other hand, if Temaru’s Union for Democracy (UPLD) coalition leads in the election, chances are high that it could obtain a majority once more, maybe in a government coalition with the small pro-French but anti-Flosse parties, For You the People, led by Nicole Bouteau, and the Philip Schyle-led New Star, who are running together under the name of Alliance for a New Democracy (ADN).

Indeed, the UPLD has recently gained more strength than ever, adding new constituent parties to the coalition. Besides its main constituent, Oscar Temaru’s independence party, several other pro-independence or left-wing political parties are members: New Land, led by Mahina mayor Emile Vernaudon, Love for the Land, led by Georges Handerson, veteran socialist independence leader Jacqui Drollet’s Power to the People, as well as the pro-independence trade-union You Are Your Own Hand, led by Ronald Terorotua. In addition, two other small political parties recently joined the UPLD: Jacky Bryant’s local Green party and the Link between the Generations, led by the lawyer Stanley Cross.

In France, UPLD is supported most of all by the French Socialist Party with which it has an agreement of cooperation, but last week all French left-wing parties, including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Greens and the revolutionary Marxist Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Workers Struggle (LO) issued a joint statement in support of Temaru and the UPLD.

While the UPLD seems thus to be reinforced, Flosse’s party People’s Rally has been recently weakened by two split-away movements: Robert Tanseau, a political leader of Papeete’s strong Chinese community, whose Unity for Peace has been part of the Tahoeraa for several years, decided to run on his own. While Tanseau has always been a rather marginal figure among Flosse’s followers, the other recent split-off, Living Polynesia, involves one of Flosse’s most influential former collaborators.

Generally, given the majority bonus system, the voters tend to move away from small parties towards the bigger ones. Last week’s opinion poll by conservative local newspaper La D‚pˆche de Tahiti, the first electoral opinion poll ever in French Polynesia, showed People’s Rally at 23%, closely followed by UPLD with 20% and ADN with 18%, while all others together had only 2%. Most important, however is the fact that about one third of the people interviewed were still undecided.

The surprisingly high percentage for ADN and the leading of People’s Rally before the UPLD may not be very representative, however. This telephone poll did not take into account that many ordinary Tahitians do not own a telephone and it is exactly this class that votes mostly for the UPLD, while the middle class is more divided into followers of Flosse and the anti-Flosse bourgeoisie (represented by ADN).

While the Tahoeraa tries to create a debate opposing independence and autonomy, presenting independence as a danger to the islands’ future, both UPLD and ADN try to avoid this delicate topic. As Oscar Temaru said, independence is still a goal, but the immediate needs of his country are in the economic and social fields. Only when the country’s economy has been developed away from dependence from France into a certain degree of self-sufficiency, will the country be fit for a debate on independence. In order for that to happen, however, the course must be set as soon as possible. And Oscar Temaru seems to be the only one brave enough to dare to do it.

[Lorenz Gonschor is a researcher for the German Pazifik-Netzwerk, and is also a member of Temaru's People’s Servant Party. For more information, visit, <www.pazifik-infostelle.org/english>.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 9, 2005. Visit the Green Left Weekly home page www.greenleft.org.au