Solomon Islands election to test pro-China leader’s hold on power

Voters in the Pacific island country are concerned by crumbling roads and lack of economic opportunity.
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2024.04.15
Visale, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands election to test pro-China leader’s hold on power Chinese President Xi Jinping and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 10, 2023.
CNS photo via Reuters

The upcoming Solomon Islands election will decide if Manasseh Sogavare, its combative, pro-Beijing prime minister can secure a consecutive term and entrench the Pacific island country’s recent shift into China’s orbit.

For many observers, the April 17 poll is the most consequential for the country in half a century and a referendum on Sogavare’s embrace of China, which was rewarded by Beijing with showcase sports facilities and funding for members of parliament, but also sparked anti-China riots in 2021.

Beijing has sought influence with Pacific island nations for several decades and the Solomon Islands has become the neon signboard of its success as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, gain supporters in international institutions and undermine U.S. military dominance in the region.

“The State Department sees Solomon Islands as where China has been able to plant its flag in the region and a considerable annoyance for Washington, D.C., and something to deal with,” said Henry Szadziewski, a researcher at the University of Hawaii’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies.

If Sogavare returns as prime minister, the U.S. will offer polite congratulations, Szadziewski told BenarNews, but “privately they would not be pleased with that.”

Despite bristling for decades with foreign aid projects, the Solomon Islands has struggled to prosper. It has been beset by corruption and ethnic tensions that in 2003 sparked a years-long Australian military intervention. China’s emergence as an economic and diplomatic power presented an alternative to reliance on Australia that Sogavare seized upon.

Under his leadership, the Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic recognition to China from long-standing ally Taiwan in 2019. It signed a security cooperation pact with China in 2022 and allowed Chinese police into the country, alarming the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

Games bankrolled

China largely bankrolled the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara, is constructing a network of mobile phone towers and has promised to build roads. It handed out money to members of parliament, which Taiwan had previously provided, for community projects. Since 2023, such Chinese funding has been managed by the rural development ministry, according to Solomon Islands government statements. 

The election campaign of opposition member of parliament Peter Kenilorea Jr., son of the first prime minister following independence from Britain, has included promises to restore ties with Taiwan and review the security pact with China. 

After the election, parliament chooses the prime minister and Sogavare could face a contest even if his political alliance performs well. Party allegiances in the Solomon Islands are more fluid than in longer-established democracies, making the outcome difficult to predict with any confidence.

People wait to board a passenger ferry at the port in Honiara, Solomon Islands, April 11, 2024. [Stephen Wright/BenarNews]
People wait to board a passenger ferry at the port in Honiara, Solomon Islands, April 11, 2024. [Stephen Wright/BenarNews]

Most of the day-to-day concerns of the Solomon Islands’ 700,000 people are far removed from the intensifying U.S.-China competition for influence in the Pacific.

And because members of parliament get substantial funds from the national budget to splash on their communities, it is local promises of help – anything from corrugated metal roofing for a home to a wheelbarrow for a garden – more than national issues that influence votes.

Barely drivable roads are a top complaint on Guadalcanal, where the capital is located, and other islands.

In the countryside, teenage boys fill gaping potholes in small sections of road with dirt and stop cars to demand a toll – a small irritant for drivers, but also a sign of the weakness of the central government. 

Poor health care including even shortages of over-the-counter painkiller Panadol, rising prices for necessities such as rice at mostly Chinese-owned shops and lack of jobs for the young are other frustrations.

Nothing has improved in years, said Peter Benjamin, who with his family makes a living by growing cassava and other crops for sale at a market in Honiara.

Sanitation concerns

Living only kilometers from the capital, Benjamin said his community has to trek to a stream to get water and doesn’t have proper sanitation.

He told BenarNews he wants a new member of parliament and hopes his community can get a water bore and proper toilets.

Ruth Liloqula, head of the Solomon Islands chapter of anti-corruption campaigner Transparency International, said the jostling over the country doesn’t help its democracy, which already faces challenges such as women’s low participation, vote buying and disenfranchisement in some areas.

“It’s a fight between these superpowers. It’s got nothing to do with us, but we are the ones that are being used to score the points,” she said.

“To me when you look at it, they forgot us, they forgot the people,” Liloqula told BenarNews. “They are too busy fighting each other, too busy competing against each other that they forgot the people they are stepping on.”

University of Hawaii associate professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a Solomon Islander, has warned that the intensity of the rivalry by local and international actors to influence the government has the potential to unravel the country.

“These global powers have a vested interest in the outcome of this election. Despite rhetoric about respecting Solomon Islands sovereignty, it is worth noting that they have the capacity to influence domestic politics,” he said in a commentary published last month.

A week ahead of the election, Chinese officials including Beijing’s envoy to the Pacific,  Qian Bo, visited the most populous island Malaita to deliver aid such as water tanks and solar lights and to sign a cooperation agreement between Malaita and China’s Jiangsu province, according to China’s embassy in Honiara.

Malaita’s former premier Daniel Suidani, who was ousted last year after opposing recognition of Beijing and refusing China projects, has attracted large crowds at campaign rallies.

Ruth Liloqula, head of the Solomon Islands chapter of anti-corruption organization, Transparency International, speaks during an interview at her office in Honiara, April 11, 2024. (Stephen Wright/BenarNews0
Ruth Liloqula, head of the Solomon Islands chapter of anti-corruption organization, Transparency International, speaks during an interview at her office in Honiara, April 11, 2024. (Stephen Wright/BenarNews0

Meanwhile, hundreds of Australian police and soldiers are providing security and logistics during the election, with forces from New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea also involved.

Officials in Canberra, Beijing and Washington could be waiting along with Solomon Islanders until at least the end of this month to find out who will lead the country.

Vote counting in the nation of hundreds of far flung islands can normally take a week or more and may be longer this time as national and provincial elections are on the same day. Once results are known, there could be wrangling before the 50-member parliament chooses a prime minister.

Sogavare’s first hurdle to a consecutive term as leader is to be reelected in his constituency on the island of Choiseul.

He has been prime minister four times over the past 25 years, but no Solomon Islands prime minister has won consecutive terms since independence from Britain in 1978 and most don’t serve out a full four-year term. 

Sogavare has gone into the election with a “huge campaign war chest,” putting him in a strong position, said Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at Australia’s Lowy Institute and former diplomat in the region.

Working against Sogavare, Sora told BenarNews, are the outbreaks of violence during his administration, increased tensions between the national government and the provinces and the “immense international scrutiny” caused by the security pact with China.

“In the past, during periods of high community tensions, members of parliament have opted to put up figures they see as less divisive for prime minister, in an effort to turn down the political temperature of the country,” said Sora. “But few could compete with Sogavare’s political resources going into this election.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.