Solomon Islands: Pacific elections closely monitored by China and the West

Image source, August/Reuters

Comment on the photo, The Solomon Islands holds its national and local elections today

In the Solomon Islands, the night before the election is known as “Devil's Night”.

Political candidates offer bribes, handing out everything from cash to bags of rice and Chinese-made solar panels to secure votes at the last minute.

Vote buying has been a common tactic in elections in the Pacific nation, and has been difficult to eradicate, despite tightening electoral laws.

But that's not why some of the world's major powers are paying such close attention to Wednesday's vote.

This remote island nation plays a crucial role in the struggle between China and the United States – with its ally Australia – over influence in the region.

But back on the ground, voters will focus mainly on their immediate needs. More than 80% of the population of 700,000 live outside the capital, Honiara – most of whom do not have access to basic services such as electricity, medical aid, schools and transport.

Why is China an election issue?

Wednesday's election – postponed from last year – is the first time citizens will be able to vote since the Solomon Islands shifted from the west towards Beijing.

As a result, the vote could be seen as a “referendum” on current leader Manasseh Sogavare’s embrace of China, says scholar Edward Kafanov, who traveled the country for his book “Divided Islands,” which documents the nation’s turn to Beijing.

The Solomon Islands are located about 1,600 kilometers (900 miles) north of Australia, and are one of the poorest countries in the region due to decades of tribal conflict.

Until 2017, Australia led the peacekeeping mission here.

Two years after the mission's withdrawal, Prime Minister Sogavare chose to abandon decades-long diplomatic relations between his country and Taiwan in favor of Beijing. Then, in 2022, he signed a security agreement with China — the details of which are still not publicly known.

This has set off major alarm bells for Australia and its other Pacific neighbours. At one point, there was talk that the treaty could allow for the establishment of a Chinese naval base in the US-dominated Pacific region, rumors that Sogavare denied.

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare (third left) in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (first right) in Beijing in 2019

However, if he wins again, the Prime Minister has pledged to only deepen ties – he sees Beijing as providing his country's future prosperity, while also making clear his antipathy to traditional partner Australia and the United States.

Chinese aid and investment have flowed into the country since the deal, bringing new stadiums, roads and other infrastructure. China is the Solomon Islands' main infrastructure partner, Sogavare told the United Nations last year.

How are elections held?

People across about 900 islands will head to polling stations between 07:00 local time (23:00 GMT) and 16:00 to vote for representatives at the national and regional level.

There are 50 parliamentary seats to be filled. Negotiations then take place to form a ruling coalition, with representatives voting among themselves to choose the prime minister.

Historically, party lines have not been fixed, and more than 100 candidates are running as independents. There are only 20 women candidates, which is a long-standing issue.

Two rival coalitions (DCGA and CARE) field enough candidates for either to win, says Pacific analyst Meg Keane, of Australia's Lowy Institute for Foreign Policy Research.

Image source, August/Reuters

Comment on the photo, Supporters of the various candidates flocked to the capital last week

The main candidates for prime minister are:

  • Current leader Manasseh Sogavare (DCGA coalition), which is seen as well-positioned to return to power due to political spending regimes that favor the incumbent. He has served as Prime Minister four times, but no Prime Minister has been re-elected for consecutive terms
  • Peter Keniloria Jr., leader of the United Party (UP), wants to cancel the Chinese security agreement and favors relations with Western countries. He is a former United Nations official and the son of the islands' first prime minister after independence from Britain
  • Matthew Weale and former Prime Minister Rick Ho (CARE) who have formed a coalition focused on education, health and a foreign policy that prioritizes the national interests of the Solomon Islands.
  • Gordon Darcy LiloSolomon Islands Rural Progress Party (SEPRA), is a former Prime Minister fighting for change
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What are the concerns about voting?

Beyond geopolitics, analysts say this is an election of great importance for supporting democracy in a country with a history of riots and coups.

The memory of recent riots in the capital Honiara still lingers – including one in 2021 when protesters tried to burn down the prime minister's house as anger mounted over perceived corruption in the political class, persistent poverty and the country's shift to China.

It is also only the country's second election since the departure of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission.

Election observers are present in the country to monitor whether voting meets fair and free standards, amid long-standing concerns about practices such as “Devil's Night”. An election monitoring report by Australian academics found that in the last election in 2019, Candidates freely distributed money and other goods.

“In the Solomon Islands, elections are mainly about local issues and commitments,” says Dr Keane. “Candidates with deep pockets and wealthy supporters are better able to lobby and even buy votes.”

But corruption is also endemic in post-vote negotiations, where “money, ministerial promises, and hotel seizures are used to secure support for ruling coalitions.” According to Dr Keane in her election brief last week.

Some politicians have also alleged Beijing meddled in the elections, and some researchers have pointed out how this happened The Chinese embassy presented gifts Fishing nets, knives, water tanks and solar lamps were delivered to the main province of Malaita, a few days before the vote.

Previous research by Australian academics has found that China, and Taiwan before it, invests dollars in “constituency development funds” for members of parliament, which are effectively slush money to use.

Dr. Kane says these pots flowed almost exclusively to MPs who supported Prime Minister Sogavare.

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