Voting begins in Solomon Islands' parliamentary election closely watched by China and the West

Voting begins in Solomon Islands' parliamentary election closely watched by China and the West
Voting begins in Solomon Islands' parliamentary election closely watched by China and the West

We show you our most important and recent visitors news details Voting begins in Solomon Islands' parliamentary election closely watched by China and the West in the following article

Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - HONIARA — In the Solomon Islands, the night before an election is known as Devil's Night.

Political candidates offer bribes — handing out everything from cash to sacks of rice and Chinese-made solar panels to secure votes last minute.

Vote-buying has been a common tactic in the Pacific nation's elections — hard to stamp out, despite toughened electoral laws.

But that is not why some of the world's biggest powers are paying such close attention to Wednesday's vote.

This remote island nation plays a crucial role in the jostling between China and the US — with its ally Australia — for influence in the region.

Back on the ground, however, voters will mainly be focused on their immediate needs. More than 80% of the 700,000 population live outside the capital Honiara — most without access to basic services like electricity, medical aid, schools and transport.

Wednesday's election — delayed from last year — is the first time citizens will be able to vote since the Solomon Islands pivoted from the West towards Beijing.

As a result, the vote could be seen as "a referendum" on incumbent leader Manasseh Sogavare's embrace of China, says researcher Edward Cavanough, who traveled across the country for his book 'Divided Isles' documenting the nation's turn to Beijing.

"The PM has been very adept at leaning into the [geopolitical competition] and playing each of these major and regional powers off each other to gain incredible concessions," he says.

Located about 1,600km (900 miles) north of Australia, the Solomon Islands is one of the poorest countries in the region due to decades of tribal conflict.

Up until 2017, Australia led a peacekeeping mission here.

Then two years after the mission withdrew, Prime Minister Sogavare chose to drop his country's decades-long diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favour of Beijing. Then, in 2022, he signed a security pact with China — the details of which are still not publicly known.

That set off major alarm bells for Australia and other Pacific neighbors. At one point, there was talk the treaty could allow a Chinese naval base to be established in the US-dominated Pacific region — rumors dismissed by Sogavare.

However if he wins again, the PM has pledged to only deepen ties — he sees Beijing as the provider of his country's future prosperity, while also making clear his dislike of traditional partner Australia and the US.

Chinese aid and investment have flowed into the country since the deal, bringing new stadiums, roads and other infrastructure. Sogavare told the UN last year that China was the Solomon's lead infrastructure partner.

But his political opponents have criticized his closeness to China, questioning if it's the best course for the nation. Some have said that if they gain power they would revisit the China security deal, while others say they prefer working with traditional Western partners like Australia.

People across about 900 islands will make their way to polling booths between 07:00 local time (23:00 GMT) and 16:00 to vote for representatives at the national and provincial level.

There are 50 MP seats to be filled. Negotiations then happen after that to form a ruling coalition, with MPs voting among themselves to select a prime minister.

Party lines have historically been non-fixed and more than 100 candidates are running as independents. Only 20 candidates are women — a long-running issue.

Two competing coalitions (DCGA and CARE) are fielding enough candidates to make it possible for either to win, says Pacific analyst Meg Keen, from the Australian Lowy Institute foreign policy thinktank.

The main candidates for PM are:

Current leader Manasseh Sogavare (DCGA Coalition), who is seen as well-positioned to return to power due to political spending systems which favor the incumbent. He's served as prime minister four times, but no PM has been re-elected for consecutive terms

Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of United Party (UP), wants the China security pact scrapped and favors ties from Western countries. A former UN official, he is the son of the islands' first prime minister following independence from Britain

Matthew Wale and former prime minister Rick Hou (CARE) who have formed a coalition focusing on education and health and a foreign policy that prioritizes Solomon Islands national interests

Gordon Darcy Lilo, Solomon Islands Party for Rural Advancement (Sipra), is a former prime minister campaigning for change

Beyond the geopolitics, this is a hugely significant election for shoring up democracy in a country with a history of riots and coups, analysts say.

The memory of recent riots in the capital Honiara still linger — including one in 2021 when protesters attempted to burn down the prime minister's home as anger over perceived corruption in the political class, persistent poverty and the country's turn to China boiled over.

It is also only the country's second election since the Australia-led Regional Assistance Mission departed.

Election observers are in the country to observe whether the vote meets fair and free standards, amid long-running concerns about practices such as Devil's Night. An election monitor report by Australian academics found that in the last election in 2019, candidates were freely handing out cash and other goods.

"In Solomon Islands, elections are fought mainly on local issues and commitments. Candidates with deep pockets and wealthy backers are better able to win favour, and even buy votes," says Dr Keen.

But corruption is also endemic in the post-vote negotiation, where "money, ministerial promises, and hotel lock-ups are used to secure support for governing coalitions", according to Dr Keen in her election brief last week.

Some politicians have also alleged election interference from Beijing, with some researchers pointing out how the Chinese embassy supplied gifts of fishing nets, knives, water tanks and solar lights to a key province, Malaita, just days before the vote.

Previous research by Australian academics has concluded China, and Taiwan before it, put dollars into "constituency development funds" for MPs which are effectively considered slush funds to use.

These pots have flowed almost exclusively to MPs who supported PM Sogavare, Dr Keen says. — BBC

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