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Solomon Islands’ pro-China leader wins bid to delay elections

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, right, locks arms with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Honiara on May 26. (Xinhua News Agency/AP)

SYDNEY — Solomon Islands lawmakers voted Thursday to delay national elections, a move opposition leaders called a “power grab” that could rekindle violence in a Pacific country whose growing ties to China have drawn international concern.

The outcome was a victory for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who argued that the poor Pacific island nation could not afford to hold elections and host the Pacific Games next year. The constitutional amendment delayed the dissolution of the current Parliament from May 2023 until the end of next year, shortly after the conclusion of the games, and pushed the election to early 2024.

Western allies have watched with alarm as Sogavare has tilted sharply toward China at a time when the world’s most powerful authoritarian state is aggressively expanding its geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific. His policies have fueled local resentment that has occasionally boiled over into civil unrest.

Opposition lawmaker Peter Kenilorea Jr. said he feared that postponing the elections would allow Sogavare to consolidate his control over the country or, worse, suspend elections altogether.

“It’s an authoritarian move,” Kenilorea said in an interview before the vote. “This is all about him staying in power for as long as he can.”

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Sogavare denied the accusation.

“The opposition is saying we are using the Pacific Games to amend the constitution to hold on to power,” Sogavare told Parliament on Thursday. “This statement by the opposition is simply wrong … misleading and meant to turn people against this government.”

The prime minister also blasted Australia’s recent offer to help fund the election as an “attempt to directly interfere” in his country’s domestic affairs.

The election deferral threatens to damage Sogavare’s already frayed relationships with Australia and the United States, which have privately expressed concerns over the idea after publicly criticizing the security pact Sogavare struck with China earlier this year.

The United States and its allies fear the security pact could pave the way for the establishment of a Chinese military base in the strategically valuable island chain — roughly 1,000 miles from Australia’s coast — where several thousand American soldiers died during World War II’s Guadalcanal campaign.

The Solomon Islands and China have denied plans for a base. But China’s increasing sway in the archipelago is unmistakable, from the $50 million sports stadium it is building for the Pacific Games to its growing influence over local policing and politics, to a plan for Huawei to build more than 150 telecommunications towers that critics say could enable Chinese surveillance.

The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, shortly after Sogavare was elected.

Kenilorea said he feared that delaying the election could spark violence like the deadly riots that wracked the capital, Honiara, last year.

‘Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive

“People will use [the deferral] as an excuse to perhaps do something” violent, he said.

He also worried the government would use any unrest as an excuse to invoke the security pact and call in Chinese police or soldiers.

Kenilorea and other opposition figures said the constitutional amendment had been rushed through Parliament without the usual review process. At Sogavare’s behest, Parliament voted to scrap the normal three-day waiting period and debate the bill immediately after its second reading on Thursday, against the objections of the opposition.

“The prime minister has succeeded in making us the laughingstock of the region as the country that is prepared to tamper with its constitution for a two-week event against the clear wishes of its people,” opposition leader Matthew Wale told Parliament, adding that the deferral was a “power grab” and a “hijacking of the people’s right to exercise their vote [every] four years.”

Joseph Foukona, an expert on the Pacific at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said there was no reliable public polling on the issue but that from social media and local consultations, the idea to defer the election appeared unpopular. He said Sogavare would be hoping to get a popularity boost from holding the Pacific Games a few months before the election.

“It’s sort of a legacy thing, as well,” Foukona said, adding that Sogavare wanted to be “the main guy in the show when things are happening, he wants to be the big man.”

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Anna Powles, senior lecturer with the Center of Defense and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, said the Solomon Islands’ election deferral raised “concerns about democratic resilience” in the Pacific region.

But Powles also said Australia and the United States “need to rethink how they engage with Sogavare,” suggesting the veteran leader had tried to “wedge” the Western allies recently by exempting Australian and New Zealand vessels, but not U.S. ones, from a ban on foreign ships docking at its ports.

Even as he criticized Australia, Sogavare said he would accept the nation’s offer to help fund and facilitate an election — in 2024.

“You made the offer so you better be prepared to pay for it,” he said, with a laugh.