The reformist party of Oscar Temaru has won the bi-election in Tahiti on February 13, according to reports from BBC News, but he does not have a majority of seats in the Assembly. His Union for Democracy appears to have won 25 out of the 37 seats contested on Sunday while the party of Gaston Flosse, the conservative, won only 10 seats. These results will give each of the major candidates 27 seats in the French Polynesia Assembly, which has 57 seats overall. A minor centrist party, Nicole Bouteau’s Alliance for a New Democracy, appears to have won the three remaining seats. It is not certain yet who will form a new government, but ABC News reports that the centrists will support Mr. Temaru to form a coalition government. Radio Australia confirms that Temaru is hopeful of gaining enough support to form a government.
The tense election concluded nearly a year of struggle for political change in French Polynesia. The roots of the struggle, of course, go even farther back. While the mostly peaceful, traditional ways of the rural Tahitians may still prevail to some extent, the most populous island in French Polynesia is an increasingly complex, urbanized society.
Gaston Flosse, president of French Polynesia since 1982, has long represented the business establishment and French interests in the islands, according to a recent story in Green Left Weekly. A friend of French President Jacques Chirac, Flosse is a skilled politician who knows how to garner support from conservative interests that want to maintain the status quo. His opponent, Oscar Temaru, a lifelong resident of Faa’a, a poor suburb and for 20 years its mayor, is a leading figure in the pro-independence movement. He has built his campaign on a call for “taui,” Tahitian for “change.”
In an election last May, Temaru defeated Flosse and became president, with 29 representatives supporting him in the 57 seat French Polynesia Assembly. During his brief time in office, Temaru moved to cut back on government waste, and he began an investigation of the corruption that had occurred during the Flosse years. Temaru also moderated his call for independence, arguing that French Polynesia has to get its economy together before it can begin a move toward independence.
In October, however, one of the Temaru government supporters crossed over to the Flosse side during a vote of no confidence and the presidency switched to Flosse again. A government council in France, meanwhile, invalidated the results of the May 2004 election in the Windward Islands portion of French Polynesia, the populous islands of Tahiti and Moorea, which together have over two-thirds of the population of the island chain and 37 out of the 57 seats in the Assembly. February 13 was set for the bi-election in the Windward Group. The intensely contested campaign has pitted very contrasting visions of the future of the islands before the people of Tahiti and Moorea.
The run-up to the elections has been particularly tense. Temaru’s party, the Union for Democracy (UPLD), organized a mass march by its supporters on February 5. According to Active Wollongong, about 25,000 Tahitians, including a large number of young people, marched peacefully on February 5 from the suburbs into the Place Tarahoi in downtown Pape’ete to show their support for Temaru and to listen to speeches by him and his supporters.
Unfortunately, events over the past week have not been entirely peaceful. Tahitipresse reported on February 7 that Flosse supporters organized a political motorcade right through Faa’a, the heart of Temeru’s working-class stronghold, and during that event, a woman supporter of Flosse was assaulted. The Flosse party attempted to gain as much propaganda advantage of the incident as possible, which the Temaru party condemned also. According to the Flosse party, their supporters were being subject to intimidation and verbal abuse by the Temaru side. A Flosse campaign document blamed the political climate on Temaru’s “campaign of hate.” Needless to say, the Temaru campaign blamed the Flosse campaign.
Despite these incidents, charges, and counter-charges, the political campaign has reflected, at least to some extent, the long tradition of peaceful co-existence in Tahiti . While rural Tahitian society may have changed since Levy analyzed it 30 years ago, the stresses of conducting a fiercely contested election have produced only minor incidents.