Solomon Islands observes campaign blackout ahead of election

Nearly 400 independent observers are monitoring the voting in national and provincial elections.
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2024.04.16
Honiara, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands observes campaign blackout ahead of election A woman gestures during an election campaign parade in the Solomon Islands capital on April 16, 2024.
Stephen Wright/BenarNews

Noisy, colorful parades brought traffic to a standstill in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on the last day of election campaigning as thousands also left the city on ships and ferries to vote in hometowns and villages across the archipelago.

Voting in national and provincial elections starts early Wednesday and a campaigning blackout is now in place. Police and troops from Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand have descended on the Pacific island country – which was rocked by riots as recently as 2021 – to provide security during the election.

“Be Wise. Be Responsible. Be Courageous. Value your two votes and do it!” the Election Commission urged Solomon Islanders in text messages blasted to mobile phones. It also sent messages about help for disabled voters and reminders that breaching the campaign blackout is an offense.

As the economically lagging country of more than 700,000 people prepares to vote, the government’s ineffectiveness in providing basic services and the struggle to earn enough money to get by is preoccupying many voters.

Whether Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare will stay in power is being keenly watched by governments from China to Australia and the United States. The election is the first since the combative pro-Beijing leader switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019 and signed a secretive security pact with the Asian superpower.

Honiara’s port has been inundated with crowds in the past week as many people in Guadalcanal flocked to get on vessels to other islands where they are registered to vote.

The final day of campaigning on Monday attracted thousands onto Honiara’s dusty, pothole-filled main road – supporters of various candidates piled onto trucks and some stood atop moving cars, sounded air horns and danced in the street.

Nearly 400 independent observers are monitoring the election, the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission said Tuesday, including from regional organizations such as the Pacific Island Forum, a joint team from universities in Australia and the Solomon Islands and the local chapter of anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

The election was due to be held in 2023 but was delayed, ostensibly, because the Solomon Islands couldn’t afford to hold it in the same year it was hosting the 24-nation Pacific Games that was bankrolled by countries such as China, Australia and Indonesia.

Between them, New Zealand and Australia have contributed about U.S.$21 million towards the running of the election and deployed warships and aircraft to deliver ballots to remote locations.

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People wait to board vessels at the port in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on April 12, 2024. [Stephen Wright]

Ruth Liloqula, head of the Solomon Islands chapter of Transparency International, said an efficiently-run election doesn’t automatically mean the election process has complete integrity.

Many problems occur in the months and weeks before the election when observers aren’t on the ground, she told BenarNews.

Some stem from institutional issues such as constituency development funds, which is money that members of Parliament get from the national budget to spend in their communities with little oversight.

“With all the international and regional observers that come in the country, through their reports we get at the end of the day that the election is free and fair but it doesn’t contribute to reforms,” she said.

Women, particularly, can be disenfranchised, Liloqula said. Campaigns can be intimidating for some communities as candidates have been known to turn up with boatloads of supporters from outside the area, which inhibits genuine debate and questions.

Only 20 of the 334 candidates in the elections are women, according to the electoral commission, compared with 26 in the 2019 election, while the total number of candidates is almost the same.

James Batley, part of a joint Australian National University and Solomon Islands National University observer and research team, said a component of its work is interviewing voters about their perceptions and attitudes before the election.

One of the findings from the previous election in 2019, he told BenarNews, was that voters tended to believe they wouldn’t benefit from their member of Parliament’s constituency cash unless they voted for them.

Batley, a former Australian high commissioner to the Solomon Islands, said the joint team doesn’t make judgements on the election but hopes its research is useful to organizations such as the electoral commission.

“The good thing is we have got data from five years ago and we’ll be able to compare it to data this time around,” he said.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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