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Solomon Islands: The Pacific election being closely watched by China and the West

In World
April 17, 2024

In the Solomon Islands, the night before an election is known as Devil’s Night.

Political candidates offer bribes – handing out everything from cash and boat motors, sacks of rice and solar panels to secure last-minute votes. Vote-buying has been a common tactic in the Pacific island nation’s elections – hard to stamp out, despite toughened electoral laws.

But this is not why some of the world’s biggest powers are paying such close attention to Wednesday’s vote.

That is because this far-flung part of the southern Pacific plays a crucial role in the jostling between China and the US – with its ally Australia – for influence in the region.

Back on the ground, however, voters will largely be focusing on their immediate needs – more than 80% of the 700,000 population live outside the capital, most without basic services like electricity, medical aid and transport.

Why China is an election issue

Wednesday’s election – delayed from last year – is the first time citizens will be able to vote since the Solomon Islands pivoted from the West towards Beijing.

As a result, the vote could be seen as “a referendum” on incumbent leader Manasseh Sogavare‘s “willingness to play powers like China and Australia off each other to gain concessions for his country”, says researcher Edward Cavanaugh, who travelled across the Solomons for his book documenting the nation’s turn to China.

Located about 1,600km (900 miles) north of Australia, the Solomon Islands is one of the poorest countries in the region due to decades of tribal conflict.

Up until 2017, Australia led a peacekeeping mission here.

Two years after the mission ended, Prime Minister Sogavare chose to drop his country’s decades-long diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favour of Beijing. Then, in 2022, he signed a security pact with China – the details of which are still not publicly known.

That set off major alarm bells for some of its neighbours, including Australia. At one point, there was talk the treaty could allow a Chinese naval base to be established in the US-dominated Pacific region – rumours dismissed by Mr Sogavare.

Solomon Islands' PM Sogavare (3rd left) in a meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping (1st right) in Beijing in 2019

Solomon Islands’ PM Sogavare (3rd left) in a meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping (1st right) in Beijing in 2019 [Getty Images]

Mr Sogavare, if he wins again, has pledged to further strengthen relations – he sees Beijing as the provider of his country’s future prosperity, while also making clear his dislike of traditional partner Australia and the US. He told the UN last year that China was the Solomon’s lead infrastructure partner.

Chinese aid and investment have flowed into the country since the deal, bringing new stadiums, roads and other infrastructure.

But his political opponents have criticised his closeness to China, questioning if it’s the best course for the nation. Some have said that if they gain power they would revisit the China security deal, while others say they prefer working with traditional Western partners.

How does the election work?

People across about 900 islands will make their way to polling booths between 07:00 local time (23:00 GMT) and 16:00 to vote for representatives at the national and provincial level.

There are 50 MP seats to be filled. Negotiations then happen after that to form a ruling coalition, with MPs voting among themselves to select a prime minister.

Party lines have historically been non-fixed and rather loose. More than 100 candidates are running as independents, while only 20 candidates are women – a long-running issue.

Two competing coalitions (DCGA and CARE) are fielding enough candidates to make it possible for either to win, says Pacific analyst Meg Keen, from the Australian foreign policy thinktank The Lowy Institute.

The main candidates for PM are:

  • Current PM Manasseh Sogavare (DCGA Coalition) is seen as well-positioned to return to power due to his lobbying strength and political donation systems which favour the incumbent. He’s served as prime minister four times, but no PM has been re-elected for consecutive terms

  • Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of United Party (UP), wants the China security pact scrapped and favours ties from Western countries. A former UN official, he is the son of the islands’ first prime minister following independence from Britain

  • Matthew Wale and former prime minister Rick Hou (CARE) who have formed a coalition focusing on education and health and a foreign policy that prioritises Solomon Islands national interests.

  • Gordon Darcy Lilo, Solomon Islands Party for Rural Advancement (Sipra), is a former prime minister campaigning for change

What are the concerns about the vote?

Beyond the geopolitics, this is a hugely significant election for shoring up democracy in a country with a history of riots and coups, analysts say.

The memory of recent riots in the capital Honiara still linger – including one in 2021 when protesters attempted to burn down the prime minister’s home as anger over perceived corruption in the political class, persistent poverty and the country’s turn to China boiled over.

It is also only the country’s second election since the Regional Assistance Mission departed.

Election observers are in the country to observe whether the vote meets fair and free standards, amid long-running concerns about practices such as Devil’s Night. An election monitor report by Australian academics found that in the last election in 2019, candidates were freely handing out cash and other goods.

“In Solomon Islands, elections are fought mainly on local issues and commitments. Candidates with deep pockets and wealthy backers are better able to win favour, and even buy votes,” says Dr Keen.

Voters queueing to cast their ballots in the Solomon Islands in the last election in 2019

Voters queueing to cast their ballots in the Solomon Islands in the last election in 2019 [SOLOMON ISLANDS COMMONWEALTH]

But corruption is also endemic in the post-vote negotiation, where “money, ministerial promises, and hotel lock-ups are used to secure support for governing coalitions”, according to Dr Keen in her election brief last week.

Some politicians have also alleged interference from China, while previous research by Australian academics has concluded China put funds into a slush fund known as “constituency development funds” for politicians.

These pots flowed almost exclusively to MPs who supported PM Sogavare, Dr Keen says.

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