China pact and development funds at stake in Solomon Islands election

The incumbent prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has moved the country closer to Beijing over the past five years with Beijing funding several infrastructure projects. Various opposition candidates would like to restore ties with the country’s traditional partners, Australia and New Zealand. Many observers believe that domestic political issues will play a role in the vote, despite taking a backseat in the campaign.

Honiara (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Solomon Islands’ general election will be closely followed.

Incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who signed a security pact with China in 2022 raising concerns among Western countries, hopes to be the first prime minister to be elected for two consecutive terms.

The country is one of the poorest places in the Pacific, with limited infrastructure and a weak healthcare system, whose development has relied heavily on foreign aid (traditionally from Australia and New Zealand), an issue some opposition candidates have focused on.

In 2019 Prime Minister Sogavare ran as an independent candidate, becoming head of government for a fourth time; he then proceeded to break off broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of the People’s Republic of China.

This election was initially scheduled for last year but was postponed by a year because the country hosted the Pacific Games (paid by China) and the prime minister argued that it could not afford both at the same time.

As he has done since, Sogavare has based his campaign on his Look North strategy, which he first launched in 2008, stressing the “pivotal” support provided by China to build the country’s infrastructure and set it “on a more favourable path, a right footing domestically and internationally,” he said

Several opposition candidates disagree and would like to review the Solomon Islands' position vis-à-vis China.

One of them, Peter Kenilorea Jr., wants the terms of the security pact signed with China be published as well as the re-establishment of relations with Taiwan.

Allied with former Prime Minister Rick Hou, Matthew Wale has promised to improve education and health and prioritise national interests in foreign policy.

A third politician opposed to the China connection is Daniel Suidani, who wants to become, again, the premier of Malaita, the country’s largest province. He had previously banned Chinese companies from the province.

Some observers believe that foreign policy has eclipsed domestic issues that deserved more attention from the politicians running for office.

“We should put aside geopolitics and first respond to the pressing development needs and struggles our rural people have experienced over decades,” said the former vice-chancellor of Solomon Islands National University Dr Jack Maebuta.

Ruth Liloqula, head of Transparency Solomon Islands, agrees. In his view, the election campaign should not be "mainly based on foreign policy".

“Look at rural areas first, rather than Look North or wherever you may wish to look, but remember our rural people are suffering every day,” he said.

Located 1,600 kilometres northeast of Australia, the Solomon Islands have a population of about 700,000, living on six main islands: Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Makira, Malaita, New Georgia, and Santa Isabel.

Voters will cast their ballot next Wednesday, 17 April, from 7 am to 4 pm, to pick 50 members of the National Parliament; once a governing coalition has been formed, a prime minister will be selected.

Sogavare first came to power in 2000 and governed for 17 months. He served again in 2006 for 18 months, and held the post again in 2014, but did not complete his four-year term following a vote of no confidence.

In 2021, when anti-government riots broke out, he was forced to call in Australian security forces to restore order.

For various observers, it is hard to predict the outcome of this election. One of the reasons is that on the eve of the vote, known as the "night of the devil", candidates often resort to vote buying.

To counter the practice, the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission began an advertising campaign urging voters to "Keep your votes secret and say NO to vote buying and selling”.