New Caledonia Takes Step Toward Political Stability

THE LOCAL elections this past weekend in New Caledonia were trouble-free. No bombings. No roadblocks. No riots or deaths. That in itself offers a clear indication that this conflict-ridden French South Pacific territory has taken another step down the road to stability.

A month ago, the longevity of the Matignon peace accords signed last year seemed in doubt. Pro-independence moderate Jean-Marie Tjibaou and his deputy were assassinated. As an architect of the 10-year peace plan which brought the island nation back from the brink of civil war, Mr. Tjibaou was considered to be indispensable to the accord's successful implementation.

But Tjibaou's death has apparently solidified support in the electorate for the Matignon accords. The elections, turning New Caledonia over to semi-autono-mous rule, are the first step in the plan.

Despite an ``active'' boycott call from one extreme left-wing group, voter turnout was a relatively high 69 percent. And, unlike elections in recent years, there was no violence reported.

As expected, the Melanesian pro-independence Kanak Socialist Liberation Front (FLNKS) won control of two rural provinces. The South province was won by the pro-French Rally for Caledonia in the Republic (RPCR).

The once-dominant conservative RPCR got 27 seats, short of a majority in the 54-seat Territorial Congress. But the RPCR did better than expected, as did the FLNKS, which picked up 19 seats. Extreme splinter groups, mostly on the right, took the remaining seats.

The RPCR's failure to secure a clear majority means it now must work more closely with the leftist FLNKS or the extreme right. Leaders of the two major political groups continue to voice a commitment to the accord.

The peaceful election and sturdiness of the accord pleases French Prime Minister Michel Rocard in Paris. He notes that the parties which signed the accord last year now hold 90 percent of the seats, giving New Caledonia a government of ``undeniable legitimacy'' for the first time in years.

Analysts say the accord ranks as one of Mr. Rocard's finest achievements since coming to office.

Next month, the newly elected New Caledonia officials take office. And the nine-year Matignon accords challenge begins in earnest.

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