TAHITI’S TONG SANG STRUGGLES TO HOLD PRESIDENCY

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TAHITI’S TONG SANG STRUGGLES TO HOLD PRESIDENCY Business community frustrated with endless power struggle

By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, May 16, 2008) – French Polynesia's embattled President Gaston Tong Sang has announced on Thursday announced yet another reshuffle in his three-week-old cabinet in a bid to maintain a sufficient majority to govern.

The latest appointment comes two weeks after a first reshuffle was announced, when Tong Sang's government was only one week old.

Fernand Roomataaroa, an MP from the Southern Austral islands constituency, has obtained the portfolio of minister for agriculture.

Roomataaroa had clearly and publicly signalled, since the beginning of this week, that if he did not get the ministerial seat, he would cross the floor to the opposition.

He had even held talks with current opposition leader, former President Gaston Flosse, who currently commands a significant portion of MPs from his Tahoeraa Huiratira party in the local House.

The reshuffle entailed the removal of Haamoetini Lagarde as agriculture minister.

Threats of floor-crossing

Speaking to local television RFO, on the eve of his appointment, Roomataaroa admitted that his demand to Tong Sang was a kind of "blackmail".

However, he said this was to ensure that MPs from the outer islands of French Polynesia were better represented in the French Pacific territory's government.

Tong Sang also told MPs earlier this week that moves were underway to ensure a fairer representation of all of French Polynesia's atolls and outer islands constituencies in the local Parliament.

Two weeks ago, Tong Sang, only one week after announcing his cabinet line-up, announced a first reshuffle whereby he appointed Louis Frébault as Minister of Public Works and outer islands infrastructure.

The appointment was then widely rumoured to be the result of fresh tensions within the new majority.

The first reshuffle required that then Public Works minister Moehau Teriitahi be relocated to a ministry of planning and relations with the municipalities, also in charge of renewable energy.

Since end of April, rumours of a "payback" defiance motion, this time against Tong Sang, were rife as Frébault's wife, Joëlle, who is also a member of the local parliament, was openly expressing discontent at the allotment of portfolios in the new government that had at the time excluded her husband and was threatening to switch to the opposition.

Frébault's appointment is widely regarded as a move intended to "fix" him and his disgruntled wife.

Tong Sang was elected President of French Polynesia on April 20, as a result of the vote of a motion of no confidence against predecessor Gaston Flosse.

Flosse himself had only been in power for the five preceding weeks.

After his election as President of French Polynesia, Tong Sang left one portfolio "open", so as to allow MPs from the opposition (including Flosse's Tahoeraa Huiraatira and pro-independence leader and former President Oscar Temaru's Union for Democracy -UPLD-) to join his executive.

However, this did not eventuate, except for Armelle Merceron, a former Tahoeraa government minister, who was however not expelled from Flosse's party for the time being.

Tong Sang's current caucus (which comprises his To Tatou Ai'a part and several smaller groups within the House, including a gathering of MPs from the "outer islands") within French Polynesia's legislative assembly remains paper-thin: 29 of the 57 MPs.

Business stakeholders frustrated

Meanwhile, since last month and amidst what seemed a clear indication that instability in French Polynesia was more rife than ever, business leaders in the capital Pape'ete have also expressed frustration.

Employers' union representatives said stability was an essential ingredient to kick-start the economy and allow local companies to employ people who are currently out of a job.

"We are literally sitting on a social time bomb", the union said earlier this month.

With a backdrop of political instability that has dogged French Polynesia's economy for the past five years, recent tourism statistics released showed a clear slump (-1.5 percent in 2007 compared to 2006 figures).

Appeals launched in the past few days from leaders, who strongly suggested that a government of national unity be formed, for the sake of stability, have remained unheeded.

Instead, the official opening of the parliamentary sitting was last week postponed due to numerous boycotts from the opposition, followed by attempts from Tong Sang's MPs to meet at alternative locations.

Both sides, which have been trading accusations of "coup behaviour", were last week strongly cautioned by French High Commissioner Anne Boquet.

The current unrest comes only days ahead of a planned trip to Paris from Tong Sang.

The French Polynesian President is scheduled to travel to the French capital on May 19 for a one-week visit, where he is supposed to head a strong delegation to sign a five-year so-called "development pact" with the French government, for a total of 435 million euros (672.3 million US dollars) to be jointly financed by French Polynesia and France.

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