26 Mar 2013

Campaining in French Polynesia

4:49 pm on 26 March 2013

Campaigning is underway in French Polynesia for the territorial elections to choose a new assembly for a five-year term.

A new electoral system is in place for the two rounds of voting in April and May amid calls for a renewal of the political class after a decade of economic decline and unprecedented political instability.

Walter Zweifel has more.

The French newspaper of record Le Monde says Paris is worried about the elections in Tahiti as the choice appears to be between the pest and cholera.

On one side is the ruling pro-independence Union For Democracy camp, portrayed as inert financial managers, who are keen to pursue a decolonisation agenda that is bound to undermine the global span France aspires to maintain.

On the other side, there is a discredited loyalist camp, whose leaders have piled up a raft of corruption convictions for excesses and abuses largely tolerated by France, whose main policy concern was an undisturbed nuclear weapons testing regime.

Many of the leading loyalists, also known as pro-autonomy advocates such as Gaston Flosse, are politically alive as long as they can keep appealing against their sentences.

So what do voters think?

There is no clear answer as there are no regular opinion polls to go by.

In a weekly feature on local television, however, a student and first time voter was clear.

"The only way to get things right is the radical change of the political class"

For this man there has to be radical change by replacing the political class.

Last month, Gaston Flosse appealed against a suspended four-year jail sentence for running a phantom job network to the benefit of his party.

In January, he appealed against a five-year prison sentence for corruption over public sector contracts.

His deputy, Edouard Fritch, is facing corruption charges and so does Gaston Tong Sang, who was the perceived election winner five years ago when his To Tatou Aia Party briefly became the biggest party.

Jean-Christophe Bouissou, who was a key associate of theirs, is also accused of corruption - this time it's linked to a businessman, Bill Ravel,

And in connection with the ongoing Ravel case, for the first time a minister of the pro-independence government, James Salmon, was last month charged with corruption.

Going back to the same student, the verdict is clear.

We cannot put same people back into power that got us into this difficulties

He says one cannot return the same politicians to power that have put the country into such difficulties.

The last decade has seen just about every possible permutation of loyalties in what has at times been described as coalitions against nature.

What has been left is unemployment at a record high and poverty which nowadays engulfs people quickly once they lose their jobs in one of the world's costliest places.

Once an advocate for pensioners, Emile Vernier, has also turned against the political class, forming his own party and calling for French Polynesia to be made into a French department.

He says 36 years of autonomy have been used by the local political class to fill their pockets.

36 years of autonomy is enough. During these 36 years, the political elite, the ones that led us, has looked after itself. They filled their pockets and I'm not afraid to say it.

There are many more small parties contesting the election, with scant chance to secure the 12.5 percent of votes needed in the first round to make it to the run-off in May.

Judging by the outcome of last year's election to the French National Assembly, the momentum is with the opposition, in particular with the orange party, the Tahoeraa Huiraatira of Gaston Flosse.

The Tahoeraa has maintained a strong party structure despite the massive electoral setbacks it suffered five years ago.

Its campaign machinery is grinding along, using even defamatory claims.

On its website, the party boasts in a communique that the finance minister was this month involved in a car accident after drinking at the golf club.

The blog which first circulated the rumour has issued a profuse apology to the minister after establishing the facts.

The Tahoeraa is also engaged in efforts to deregister Teva Rohfritsch, a former Tahoeraa minister who now leads the new A Tia Porinetia party.

It claims he is ineligible to stand because he isn't properly registered in his electorate.

Mr Rohfritsch in turn has accused the Tahoeraa of lining up enormous Chinese loans, which the Tahoeraa denies.

Asked about his main challenger, Mr Rohfritsch says it's abstinence

He says many people no longer believe in politics.

The political instability since 2004 is linked to the changes of the electoral system - all decided by Paris but not endorsed by Tahiti.

The current system was decided by Paris two years ago, making it the fourth system it put in place in eight years.

The new proportional system will again provide for two rounds of voting, with an all-out effort expected in the second round.

The winning list will get a third of all seats in the 57-member assembly as a bonus, while the remainder will be distributed according to the lists' relative strength.

If voters put the Tahoeraa back in power, its leader Gaston Flosse could however be out of office before the end of the year.

This could happen if the last point of appeal upholds the corruption sentence he was given for the way he ran the territory when he was power a decade ago.