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

Image source, BBC MEDIA ACTION

Legend, It’s a festive mood in the capital Honiara on election day with supporters dancing to music and blowing conch shells.

In the Solomon Islands, the day before elections 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 last-minute votes.

Vote buying is a common tactic in elections in this Pacific country, difficult to eliminate, despite tougher electoral laws.

But that’s not why some of the world’s biggest powers are paying so much attention to Wednesday’s vote.

This isolated island nation plays a crucial role in the struggle for influence in the region between China and the United States – along with their ally Australia.

But back on the ground, voters will be primarily focused on their immediate needs.

More than 80% of the 700,000 residents live outside the capital Honiara – most without access to basic services such as electricity, medical aid, schools and transport.

Polling day is a festive occasion – with street parties in Honiara and voters blowing conch shells at rallies. But residents want improvements.

“I’m really excited (to vote) and can’t wait to see the changes as well,” one voter, identified only by her first name, Judy, told the BBC.

While it is good for the government to engage in foreign relations, Solomon Islanders want the next elected leaders to “also focus on the local level,” said Marklyn Keremama, 44.

“Any government that takes power should do what the people of Solomon Islands want… We want leaders who care about our needs,” he said.

Image source, BBC MEDIA ACTION

Legend, Judy votes for the first time in the capital Honiara

Why China is on the ballot

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 to Beijing.

As a result, the vote could be seen as “a referendum” on outgoing leader Manasseh Sogavare’s embrace of China, said researcher Edward Cavanough, who traveled across the country for his book Divided Isles documenting the turning point of the nation towards Beijing.

“The prime minister has been very adept at leveraging (geopolitical competition) and pitting each of these major and regional powers against each other to gain incredible concessions,” he says.

Located about 1,600 kilometers north of Australia, the Solomon Islands are one of the poorest countries in the region due to decades of tribal conflict.

Until 2017, Australia led a peacekeeping mission there.

Then, two years after the mission ended, Prime Minister Sogavare abandoned his country’s decades-long diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favor of Beijing. In 2022, it signed a security pact with China – the details of which are still not made public.

This set off a major wake-up call for Australia and other Pacific neighbors. At one point there was talk that the treaty could allow the establishment of a Chinese naval base in the US-dominated Pacific region – rumors Mr Sogavare denied.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare (3rd left) was invited to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (1st right) in Beijing in 2019.

However, if he wins again, the prime minister has pledged to only deepen ties: he sees Beijing as the provider of his country’s future prosperity, while making clear his dislike for its traditional partners, Australia and the United States.

Chinese aid and investment have flowed into the country since the deal, bringing new stadiums, roads and other infrastructure. Mr Sogavare told the UN last year that China was the Solomon Islands’ main infrastructure partner.

But his political opponents have criticized his closeness to China, questioning whether it is the best solution for the nation. Some have said that if they came to power they would revisit the security arrangement with China, while others say they prefer to work with traditional Western partners like Australia.

How does the election take place?

Residents on around 900 islands will head to polling stations between 7:00 a.m. local time (23:00 GMT) and 4:00 p.m. to vote for representatives at the national and provincial levels.

There are still 50 seats to be filled. Negotiations then take place to form a ruling coalition, with MPs voting among themselves to select a prime minister.

Historically, party lines have not been fixed and more than 100 candidates are running as independents. Only 20 candidates are women – a long-standing problem.

Two competing coalitions (DCGA and CARE) field enough candidates for one or the other to win, says Pacific analyst Meg Keen of the Australian foreign policy think tank Lowy Institute.

Image source, PAA/Reuters

Legend, Supporters of different candidates flocked to the capital last week

The main candidates for the position of PM are:

  • The current leader, Manassé Sogavare (DCGA Coalition), which is considered well-positioned to return to power due to political spending systems that favor the incumbent president. He has been prime minister four times, but no prime minister has been re-elected for consecutive terms
  • Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of the United Party (UP), wants the security pact with China to be abolished and favors ties with Western countries. A former UN official, he is the son of the islands’ first Prime Minister after independence from Great Britain.
  • Matthew Wale and former Prime Minister Rick Hou (CARE) who formed a coalition focused on education, health and a foreign policy prioritizing the national interests of the Solomon Islands.
  • Gordon Darcy LiloSolomon Islands Party for Rural Progress (Sipra), is a former Prime Minister who campaigns for change.

What are the concerns about voting?

Beyond geopolitics, this is an extremely important election for strengthening democracy in a country marked by riots and coups, analysts say.

The memory of recent riots in the capital Honiara is still present, notably that of 2021, when demonstrators attempted to burn down the Prime Minister’s house amid anger over perceived corruption in the political class, persistent poverty and at the country’s turn towards China was boiling.

This is also the second election held in the country since the departure of the Australian-led regional assistance mission.

Election observers are in the country to check whether the vote meets standards of fairness and freedom, amid long-standing concerns over practices such as Devil’s Night. An election observation 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 fought primarily on local issues and commitments. Candidates with deep pockets and wealthy backers are more likely to curry favor and even buy votes,” says Dr Keen.

But corruption is also endemic in post-election negotiations, where “money, ministerial promises and hotel blockades are used to gain support for government coalitions”, according to Dr Keen in his election brief of the week last.

Image source, PAA/Reuters

Legend, Solomon Islands holds national and provincial elections today

Some politicians have also alleged election interference from Beijing, with some researchers highlighting how the Chinese embassy provided gifts fishing nets, knives, water tanks and solar lamps to a key province, Malaita, just days before the vote.

Previous research by Australian academics concluded that China, and Taiwan before it, was investing in “constituency development funds” for MPs, which are effectively seen as slush funds for use.

These prize pools were paid almost exclusively to MPs who supported Prime Minister Sogavare, explains Dr Keen.

Additional reporting by Dipak Bhattarai of BBC Media Action

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