Leaders urge calm as Solomons considers economy, China

Leaders have urged calm as Solomon Islanders pause to consider their next leaders and the nation’s burgeoning relationship with China.

After street and village parades throughout Monday, national and provincial campaigns were forced into a pre-election lull on Tuesday.

Any breach of the 24-hour blackout period carries the threat of up to two years in prison.

Analysts say the national vote on Wednesday will be a pivotal moment for the nation’s 740,000 citizens, as well as for international allies.

Australian and US officials are sceptical about Beijing’s interest in the nation occupying a strategic position northeast of Cairns, despite China saying it was focused on helping the Solomons develop.

Unrest has erupted after the past three national elections and more recently in 2021 over the direction of the ruling Sogavare coalition government and its growing relationship with Beijing.

The 2021 riots caused more than SBD$800 million (A$150 million) in damage including to dozens of buildings in Honiara’s Chinatown, some of which remain charred and empty almost three years on.

A China-Solomons security pact struck in 2022, for which full details have not been released, allows Beijing to send in police to restore order and protect Chinese-owned businesses, nationals and diplomats in times of unrest.

Honiara locals expect polling day on Wednesday to pass without incident but warned frustrations could boil over once results become clearer at the weekend.

Manasseh Sogavare, who struck the China deal, is trying to become the first Solomons prime minister re-elected, having become only the second to see out a full term.

Opposition Leader Matthew Wale described the elections as the bedrock of the nation’s democracy and urged a commitment to a peaceful, free and fair election process.

‚ÄúAll Solomon Islanders must ‚Ķ respect the right of other Solomon Islanders and refrain from any actions that could disrupt the voting process,‚ÄĚ he said.

Workers were seen on Saturday erecting a temporary wall around the front of China’s three-year-old embassy building in Honiara.

But the embassy told AAP on Tuesday it had been ‚Äúdoing some maintenance work recently‚ÄĚ when asked if the fence signalled concern about potential post-election conflict being directed its way.

While playing a role, the election will be less a test of the Sogavare government’s foreign policy and China and more about the economy, one expert says.

The $2.8 billion national economy is less than a tenth the size of Tasmania’s economy but has about 30 per cent more residents.

‚ÄúThere is also a sense of hopelessness among unemployed youths, and if there is any trouble in the days between the election and forming government disenchanted young men will be at its core,‚ÄĚ Clive Moore, Emeritus Professor at the University of Queensland told AAP.

‚ÄúRecognition of China and the associated security pact means little if you don‚Äôt have enough to eat.‚ÄĚ

Australia has provided $25 million in election support including voter registration, training for electoral officials and support to get ballot papers to more than 1000 polling places.

‚ÄúSome of them are extremely remote and are not able to be reached very easily at all,‚ÄĚ Australian High Commissioner Rod Hilton told AAP on Tuesday.

‚ÄúSo that logistics effort is critical to making sure the election can happen and communities right across the country can have their say.‚ÄĚ

More than 170 local and Australian police and military personnel, including some dressed in riot gear, undertook a mock exercise in anticipation of any unrest in recent days.

AFP Commander Heath Davies said the priority of local and Australian police was to ensure Wednesday’s elections were carried out peacefully and community safety was maintained.

Wednesday’s election includes races for 50 seats in the national parliament as well as for eight of the nation’s 10 local governments.

This article was made possible through the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Journalism Fellowship Program.

 

Luke Costin
(Australian Associated Press)

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