SYDNEY (Kyodo) – The peaceful island territory of New Caledonia will vote again on Sunday on whether to become independent from France.
The weekend vote is the second of three possible referendums negotiated between Paris and independence groups in 1998 and comes two years after 56.7% of New Caledonians who voted decided not to cut ties with France in 2018.
Although the outcome of Sunday’s referendum remains uncertain, the territory will have another opportunity to vote on independence if more than 50% of voters again choose to stay with France.
Located about 17,000 kilometers from Paris, New Caledonia became French territory in 1853 after which it was first used as a penal colony. Since then, independence has remained a goal of the indigenous Kanak people, who represent nearly 40% of the approximately 270,000 citizens of the overseas territory.
The results of the first independence referendum in 2018 were closer than expected, and at the time, separatist groups viewed the result as a small victory that would help give momentum to future votes.
However, the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic uncertainty surrounding the potential closure of a nickel plant could weigh heavily on the minds of voters when they walk to the polls on Sunday.
Brazilian mining giant Vale announced in December that it would sell 95% of its nickel plant there after years of losses.
New Caledonia is the fifth largest producer of nickel in the world and industry revenues represent nearly 20% of the territory’s gross domestic product. As one of three nickel mining companies in the territory, closing the Vale operation would result in widespread job losses.
The territory’s mining industry, combined with financial aid from Paris – which represents around 15% of GDP – makes New Caledonia a relatively wealthy territory, unlike its Pacific neighbors.
However, the wealth is unevenly distributed. Poverty in the predominantly Kanak regions is up to six times higher than in the southern province of the territory, where Europeans are the largest ethnic group.
Not surprisingly, the results of the 2018 independence vote also divided racial lines.
European-dominated regions, including the capital Noumea, overwhelmingly chose to stay with France, while regions where mainly Kanaks live voted strongly in favor of independence.
According to the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, Europeans represent 27% of the population of New Caledonia.
With the difference of around 18,000 votes between the “yes” and “no” results of the 2018 referendum, both sides of the debate are courting this year the roughly 33,000 voters who abstained from voting.
However, with no opinion poll results released over the past six months, it is difficult to predict the success of the campaign.
Under the Noumea Accord, signed in 1998, New Caledonia will have three opportunities to hold a referendum on independence. If the result of Sunday’s vote is “no,” the next opportunity to vote will be in 2022.