Crumbling roads, rising prices: Solomon Islands election highlights frustrations, flashpoints

Beijing’s funding has met some of the Pacific island country’s development needs.
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2024.04.15
Visale, Solomon Islands
Crumbling roads, rising prices: Solomon Islands election highlights frustrations, flashpoints Supporters of a Honiara city council candidate in the Solomon Islands’ national, provincial and capital city elections prepare to climb onto a truck before a campaign rally, April 14, 2024.
Stephen Wright/BenarNews

John Palmer says he got a wheelbarrow, a small solar panel and a sheet of corrugated roofing after voting for his member of parliament two elections ago in 2014.

Besides that, he can’t figure what the government or his local politician have done in a decade because the one bumpy road that links Palmer’s corner of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to the capital Honiara has only deteriorated. Navigating the 40 km (25 miles) of potholes can take two hours or more.

The area’s health clinic, where Palmer had stopped to get a tab of nonprescription pain killers, is as rundown and doctorless as ever.

“The solar we used for only six months, then it broke, same as the wheelbarrow. So now if you’re around in my community, all those things he gave are broken, so now we have nothing,” Palmer said.

As the Solomon Islands readies for a national election on Wednesday, the government’s ineffectiveness in providing basic services and the struggle to earn enough money to get by is preoccupying many voters.

Guadalcanal resident John Palmer reacts during an interview with BenarNews in Visale, Solomon Islands, April 11, 2024. [Stephen Wright/BenarNews]
Guadalcanal resident John Palmer reacts during an interview with BenarNews in Visale, Solomon Islands, April 11, 2024. [Stephen Wright/BenarNews]

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.

The switch has drawn intense international scrutiny for the island nation of 700,000 people in the southwest Pacific and was a catalyst for economically ruinous riots in 2021 that destroyed the Chinatown in the capital Honiara.

A sports stadium and other facilities paid for by China sprung up in Honiara so it could host the 24 nation Pacific Games last year – touted by Sogavare as preventing economic collapse and boosting national pride. But the one easily drivable road in Guadalcanal, a recently resealed 10-km route from the international airport to Honiara, was funded by Japan.

Peter Benjamin, who with his family makes a living by growing cassava and other crops for sale at a market in Honiara, said life hasn’t improved in the 15 years he’s lived in a community only minutes from the capital.

They have to trek to get water from a stream, he told BenarNews, adding toilets are pits dug in the ground.

Members of parliament spend too much time tending to their own businesses to look after the needs of their communities, he said.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare speaks during a meeting with Chinese officials at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 10, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare speaks during a meeting with Chinese officials at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 10, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)

It may not make any difference, but like Palmer, Benjamin says he’ll vote for a new local representative when polling booths open on Wednesday.

Voters don’t get a direct say in who is prime minister. The 50 members of parliament will decide who fills the post following the election. 

“Many people around here are looking for a new member of parliament,” Benjamin said, hoping the community can get bore water and proper toilets.

Part of the reason why the national government lacks the resources to provide adequate services – even in Guadalcanal, which has more development than other parts of the country – is that members of parliament get funds from the budget to use in their communities, according to analysts.

That reduces what’s available for national ministries to spend on health care, roads and other services taken for granted in wealthy countries. Operating with little oversight, the system is blamed for fostering waste, vote buying and conflict.

It’s also one factor of several that explain why “the integrity of election processes are actually drastically compromised” despite the influx of international observers for polling day, said Ruth Liloqula, head of the Solomon Islands chapter of anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

Taiwan, during the decades it was recognized by the Solomon Islands, and China since 2019, topped up the so-called constituency development funds.

Sogavare was able to become prime minister following the 2019 election using the lure of additional funds from Beijing to convince a majority of lawmakers to support him, Liloqula said.

“We need to give politics back to the people,” she said.

Supporters of a Honiara city council candidate exit a truck during a campaign rally, April 14, 2024. (Stephen Wright/BenarNews)
Supporters of a Honiara city council candidate exit a truck during a campaign rally, April 14, 2024. (Stephen Wright/BenarNews)

Since 2023, the Chinese funding has been administered by the rural development ministry, according to a Solomon Islands government statement.

Francis Billy Hilly, a prime minister in the 1990s and now head of the Political Parties Commission, said he finds it a hopeful sign for stability that the number of parties registered for the election dropped substantially from 2019. 

It’s easy to criticize the democratic system inherited from former colonial power Britain, but no one has a viable alternative plan, he told BenarNews.

Even so, any progress is too glacial for Solomon Islanders such as Parker to notice.

Prices at the mostly Chinese-owned shops in the capital keep on increasing, he said. And selling produce at the market in Honiara earns enough to buy rice and some other necessities, but makes no profit.

“All the people of Guadalcanal want to change Sogavare,” said Palmer, “because he made us suffer for a long time.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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