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Colonial ties dominate Polynesia polls

22 February 08 17:33 GMT
By Phil Mercer
BBC News

"Waka jumping" - a phrase used by New Zealand's Maori - can help to explain the murky political world of their Polynesian cousins in Tahiti in the aftermath of national elections.

The expression means to leap from one canoe to another but has come to describe defections from political parties.

Members of the French Polynesian territorial assembly have swapped sides with alacrity in recent times, often enticed by positions of power.

This has created a fragile democracy, with the office of the president of French Polynesia resembling a revolving door.

The issue of the archipelago's relationship with France, its colonial master, has been at the core of elections this month.

The French called the poll a year early under electoral reforms designed to end the instability.

Paris controls law enforcement and the judicial system but autonomous local officials manage other areas, including education and finance.

There has been friction with Paris in the past over nuclear testing.

Three-way fight

This election has seen a pair of wily political veterans square-off yet again.

For more than two decades the pro-independence leader, Oscar Temaru, and his nemesis, Gaston Flosse, have offered very different views of French Polynesia's future; one firmly tied to Paris, the other seeking to go it alone.

This long-standing political duopoly was broken by a third force.

Gaston Tong Sang, the ethnic Chinese mayor of the island of Bora Bora, is - like his more experienced rivals - a former president who was ousted by a motion of no confidence last year.

He is pro-France and was once a close ally of Gaston Flosse.

None of the big three - Temaru, Flosse nor Tong Sang - has secured a majority in this month's general election.

Plans for another vote - this time to elect a new president, possibly over the weekend - are increasingly uncertain.

No-one seems willing to budge, but perhaps a fresh bout of "waka jumping" would end the impasse and the ease the concerns of an irritated public.

"People are fed up with politics and all the instability over recent years," said Thibault Marais, editor-in-chief of Tahiti Press.

The French government has urged the warring parties to agree to a power-sharing deal.

Amid the intrigue - or chaos as many voters would describe this political stalemate - analysts believe the results show that French Polynesia is not ready just yet to sever its colonial ties.

"The vast majority of the Tahitian population wants to keep some links with France and autonomy for them is the only viable option," said Yves-Louis Sage, a law professor at the University of French Polynesia.

"More than two-thirds of the territorial budget still comes from France and as far as independence is concerned it may happen maybe in 20 or 30 years but it is not an immediate concern for the population. They are more concerned about stability."

But some are determined to see change. Among them is veteran independence advocate, Gabriel Tetiarahi.

"It is now time for France not to interfere into elections here but to allow us to be independent and to be a sovereign nation," he said.

"It is so frustrating to see that at the end of everything, the power belongs to France," he said.

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