Anti-independents secure narrow majority in New Caledonia vote

The French Pacific territory of New Caledonia is voting in local Congress polls, six month after a closer-than-expected referendum (AFP Photo/Theo Rouby)

Noumea (AFP) - The anti-independence movement in New Caledonia won a narrow majority in the Pacific archipelago's Congress in provincial elections Sunday, official figures showed.

Six months after a closer-than-expected referendum raised questions over France's grip on the strategic islands, the anti-independence right was set to win 28 of 54 seats, while separatists would claim 26, according to projections based on figures released by the High Commission in Noumea.

In the November 6 referendum, 56.7 percent had voted to stay French, a much tighter outcome than predicted.

Separatists, who have gained ground since 1998 and held 25 seats in the outgoing Congress, had hoped to win control of the Congress and local government in Sunday's vote.

New Caledonia sits on a quarter of the world's known supplies of nickel, a vital electronics component.

Around an hour before the polls closed at 6pm (0700 GMT), turnout was 58.5 percent, around 15 percent lower than the level recorded in the referendum six months ago, the high commission said.

"The most important thing is that the majority in Congress is still loyalist," said Sonia Backes, who heads of the list of republican candidates.

Under a 1998 agreement, there can be two further votes on independence in 2020 and 2022 in the archipelago located more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Brisbane, Australia.

The pro-independence supporters are mostly ethnic Kanaks who make up less than half the population of 269,000 people.

White residents -- descendants of early European settlers as well as more recent arrivals -- overwhelmingly want to stay French.

Last November's referendum was the culmination of the 1998 peace deal which followed a quasi-civil war between Kanaks and whites that left more than 70 dead in the 1980s.

The "Noumea deal" has also paved the way for the islands to become increasingly autonomous, with wide areas of policy under the control of local authorities.

Almost 170,000 people had been eligible to vote, with more than 900 candidates to chose from.

There are 76 elected provincial representatives in all, 54 of whom will sit in the Congress.

Voting is restricted to the "population concerned" with the archipelago's political future and requires electors to have been resident at least since 1998.

In the vote, the northern province of the Loyalty Islands remained in the hands of the two heavyweights of the separatist movement, the National Union for Independence (UNI) and the Caledonian Union (UC) alliances.