Run-off Tahiti elections clouded by claims of foul play

3:45 pm on 1 May 2018

There are claims of foul play in French Polynesia's territorial election which have prompted calls to cancel last month's first round on one island.

With the ruling party standing nine candidates with criminal convictions for corruption, a movement is taking hold to urge voters to cast blank ballots.

French Polynesia election coverage

French Polynesia election coverage Photo: website La 1ere France TV

Campaigning is continuing for this weekend's second round and there is tough talk.

The Tahoeraa Huiraatira party is warning of riots in Tahiti of the kind seen in 1995 if the rival Tapura Huiraatira party stays in power for another term.

The Tahoeraa leader Gaston Flosse told a news conference that there has to be a drastic change which the Tapura won't deliver.

"There are 55,000 people out of work who are starving. Do you think they will keep starving for another 10 years?" he asked.

The Tahoeraa, which had been the big winner of the last election in 2013, is desperate to return to power and to do so, it only needs to come first in this weekend's run-off round.

Under the current electoral system, the winner will get an absolute majority in the 57-member assembly because the party coming first gets a 19-seat bonus.

Paris first introduced this system in 2004 but then changed it three times in five years.

no caption

Photo: RNZ

Disliking the instability that ensued, it restored the bonus system for the 2013 polls.

Trailing by 14 percent after the first round, the Tahoeraa said in pockets where the Tapura fared badly, millions of dollars in subsidies are now being released.

The Tapura leader, Edouard Fritch said he was always opposed to using state assets for political ends and he is against giving houses and jobs to people according how they vote.

Debating in the studios of Radio 1, a Tapura candidate Virginie Bruant dismissed suggestions of impropriety, saying there is a normal service delivery cycle.

"The process to request a subsidy is long. And it has to go through the assembly," she said.

The Tahoeraa also alleges the mayor of Huahine Marcelin Lisan tried to influence voters by giving away fuel from the petrol station he owns, and by donating chicken.

The mayor is also accused of threatening council staff with dismissal.

This has prompted a citizen, Yves Conroy, to file a complaint in Paris asking for the Huahine election to be annulled.

Mr Conroy has already lodged a complaint against the Tapura leader Edouard Fritch and four of his ministers for alleged misuse of public funds for turning a work trip to Makemo, Rikitea and Hao into a campaign event.

The Tahoeraa has said it will lodge complaints against the Bora Bora mayor Gaston Tong Sang who it says asked polling staff to allow voters to cast their ballots without showing any identification.

And it said the mayor of Makemo made a death threat against one of its activists.

A senior Tahoeraa candidate Sandra Levy-Agami says information about improper actions has been piling up.

"I have told the Tapura to watch out because in the age of the internet, young people have smartphones, they film you and put it on the internet, which ultimately adds up to quite a bit," she said.

In 2004, the Tahoeraa succeeded in getting Paris to cancel the territorial election for the Society Islands, which include Tahiti, after losing out to a coalition led by the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru.

The court Paris agreed with the Tahoeraa contention that the use of blue-coloured curtains in the town of Mahina unduly favoured his rivals whose banners were also blue, and called fresh elections in early 2005.

no caption

Photo: RNZ

In the lead-up to this year's election, Mr Temaru's party as well as minor new parties made a point of having no candidates in their line-up with criminal convictions for abusing public funds.

However, in the first round of voting these parties fared worst, with three of them dropping out while the party with most convicted candidates did best.

The Tapura has nine convicted candidates, including the current president Edouard Fritch who in the past term was forced to repay the public purse more than $US80,000 of taxpayers' money that had been diverted as part of a Tahoeraa scam.

In the continuing campaign, however, the Tahoreaa points to the Tapura record on probity while ignoring its own.

In a debate, Sandra Levy-Agami restated time and again that its party's slate is clean.

She said Bruno Sandras, a candidate who used to be a member of the French National Assembly, has cleared his sentence and the top Tahoeraa candidate Geffry Salmon has no record.

no caption

Photo: RNZ

Mr Salmon spent six months in jail during the investigation of the OPT affair which alleged that the Tahoeraa leader Gaston Flosse had diverted kickbacks in excess of two million US dollars when Mr Salmon was in charge.

Although the case was thrown out on appeal on a technicality it is still live.

Flosse is not allowed to stand because his corruption convictions came with a ban to hold office until 2019.

All the same, public television has allowed him to front leaders' debates during the campaign, remaining his party's candidate with the highest profile.

Mr Salmon admits that in the past under Gaston Flosse it had been Tahoeraa practice to spend public money on voters freely which Edouard Fritch as erstwhile deputy leader also did and still does.

"Obviously it was his school and this is how he grew up in politics. Unfortunately going beyond certain limits he has surpassed his master," he said.

With poverty getting entrenched as tens of thousands are out of work, the Tahoeraa promises relief for many, ranging from free phone landlines to almost free public transport.

no caption

Photo: Presidence Polynesie francaise

It also promises training subsidies and vows to keep the retirement age at 60 while the Tapura says raising it to 62 is its priority after the election.

Weeks before the election, a general strike halted the pension reform, with the Tapura now accusing the unions of wanting to hoist the Tahoeraa back into power.

Flosse also wants to get huge loans from the United Arab Emirates to launch the Mahana Beach project, which he says will employ 10,000 people during the construction phase.

Last month, the Tapura-led government however chose a New Zealand-Samoan consortium to build $US700 million worth of hotels and accommodation as part of the same yet scaled back project.

Questions remain about the floating island project which the government says has been abandoned, yet neither Tahiti locals nor the Tahoeraa believe this.

Our Movement petitions for election delay

Our Movement petitions for election delay Photo: FB

The nature of politics has been a turn-off for many and at 61 percent the turnout in the first round was the lowest in more than half a century.

Teiva Haumani's Our Movement still has an online petition running seeking, unsuccessfully so far, to defer the election after failing to register his party because of alleged obstructions by mayors and officials.

The Greens, which ran on the list of the E Reo Manahune, failed to make it to the second round and now ask their supporters to cast a blank ballot.

Others have also joined the call while Oscar Temaru pins his hopes on more voters coming out for the run-off.

After all, 80,000 registered voters stayed away in the first round, which is a larger number than any party manage to secure at the polls.