The Pacific Territory of New Caledonia will go to the polls on Sunday for a third and final referendum on independence from France with a campaign marked by angry demands to suspend voting due to the Covid pandemic.
The territory, some 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) east of Australia, received three independence referenda under a 1988 agreement aimed at easing tensions in the island group.
Having rejected a break with their former French colonial masters in 2018 and then again last year, the territory’s 185,000 voters will be asked for the last time: “Do you want New Caledonia to access full sovereignty and become independent?”
The vote comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained ties between Paris and its allies in the region.
France is considered a great Indo-Pacific power thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.
Australia angered France in September by ditching a submarine contract in favor of a security pact with Britain and the United States.
Behind the recent dispute is China’s growing role in the region, and experts suspect that an independent New Caledonia could be more receptive to Beijing’s advances, which are motivated in part by an interest in the territory’s mining industry.
China is already the largest single customer for New Caledonia’s metal exports, especially nickel.
China’s ‘pearl necklace’
“If the French safeguard disappears, all the elements would be in place for China to permanently establish itself in New Caledonia,” said Bastien Vandendyck, an international relations analyst specializing in the Pacific.
Other nations in the Melanesia region, which also includes Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had already become “Chinese satellites,” Vandendyck told AFP.
“All China needs now to complete its pearl necklace at Australia’s doorstep is New Caledonia,” he said.
Proponents of independence are boycotting Sunday’s vote, saying they want it postponed until September because “a fair campaign” is not possible as long as coronavirus infection figures are high.
New Caledonians’ 270,000 residents were largely spared from Covid infections during the first phase of the global pandemic, but have suffered close to 300 Covid deaths since the appearance of the Delta variant in recent months.
The French government has rejected the lawsuit, saying that the spread of the virus has slowed and that the infection rate has dropped to a relatively modest level of 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The independence movement has still threatened not to recognize the result of the referendum and promised to appeal to the United Nations to cancel it.
The French minister in charge of overseas territories, Sebastien Lecornu, said that while it is “a democratic right” to refuse to vote, the boycott would not affect the “legal validity” of the referendum.
Meanwhile, the pro-French camp has asked its supporters to come out en masse, fearing that the boycott of the pro-independence parties will lead them to stay at home, as victory may seem like a foregone conclusion.
“It is important that the mobilization of non-independence supporters remains absolute, to show that they are the majority and are united in their desire that New Caledonia continue to be part of the French Republic”, Thierry Santa, president of the conservative Rassemblement-Party LR wrote in a letter to voters.
In June, the different political parties agreed with the French government that Sunday’s referendum, whatever its outcome, must lead to “a period of stability and convergence” and be followed by a new referendum in June 2023 that would decide on the “project” that the people of New Caledonia want to move forward.
But hopes for a smooth transition were shaken when the main indigenous independence movement, the FLNKS, called the government’s insistence on going ahead with the referendum as “a declaration of war.”
Observers fear that the renewed tensions may even provoke a return of the kind of violence that was last seen 30 years ago, before the warring parties reached successive agreements to ensure the island group’s peaceful transition.
The pro-Paris side won the 2018 referendum with 56.7 percent of the vote, but that percentage fell to 53.3 percent in the 2020 elections.
The archipelago has been French territory since 1853.