Solomon Islands: China and the West are watching the Pacific election closely

image source, BBC Media Action

image caption, Election Day in the capital Honiara was a festive atmosphere with supporters dancing to music and blowing cymbals.

In the Solomon Islands, the night before the election is known as Devil's Night.

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

Vote-buying is a common tactic in the Pacific nation's elections — which, despite strict electoral laws, are difficult to stamp out.

But that's why some of the world's biggest powers are focusing on Wednesday's vote.

This remote island nation has played a key role in influencing China and the US – along with its ally Australia – in the region.

However, back on the ground, voters will focus mainly on their immediate needs.

More than 80% of the population of 700,000 live outside the capital Honiara – most without access to basic services such as electricity, medical aid, schools and transport.

Election Day is a festive occasion – street parties and voter rallies in Honiara blow horns. But locals want progress.

“I'm very excited [to vote] And eager to see changes,” one voter, identified only by her first name, Judy, told the BBC.

While it is good for the government to be involved in foreign relations, Solomon Islanders want the next elected leaders to “focus on the local level as well,” said 44-year-old Marklin Keremama.

“Any government that takes over should do what the people of Solomon Islands want… We need leaders who care about our needs,” he said.

image source, BBC Media Action

image caption, Judy is a first-time voter in the capital, Honiara

Why is China on the ballot?

As a result, the referendum could be seen as a “referendum” on current leader Manasseh Sogvar's embrace of China, says researcher Edward Cavanaugh, who traveled the country for his book Divided Isles.

The Prime Minister is very good at leaning into it [geopolitical competition] “Play each of these major and regional powers against each other to get incredible deals,” he says.

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

Until 2017, Australia led the peacekeeping mission here.

Then two years after the end of the mission, Prime Minister Sokaware abandoned his country's decades-long diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favor of Beijing. In 2022, he signed a defense pact with China — the details of which are not yet publicly known.

This set off major alarm bells for Australia and other Pacific neighbours. At one point, there was talk that the deal would allow China to establish a naval base in the US-dominated Pacific region – rumors which Mr Sokavar himself dismissed.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sokaware (3rd left) invited to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (1st right) in Beijing in 2019.

Yet if he wins again, the prime minister has only pledged to deepen ties – he sees Beijing as a provider of his country's future prosperity, while also making clear his distaste for traditional allies Australia and the US.

But his political opponents have criticized his rapprochement with China, questioning whether this is the best path for the nation. Some have said China would renegotiate the defense pact if empowered, while others want to work with traditional Western allies such as Australia.

How does the election work?

People on about 900 islands will go to the polls between 07:00 and 16:00 local time (23:00 GMT) to vote for national and provincial representatives.

50 MB seats to be filled. After that, negotiations to form a governing coalition take place, with MPs voting among themselves to elect the Prime Minister.

Party lines are not historically consistent and more than 100 candidates are running as independents. Only 20 candidates were women – a long-standing problem.

The two competing coalitions (DCGA and CARE) are fielding enough candidates to win, says Mac Keane, a Pacific analyst at Australia's Lowy Institute foreign policy think tank.

image source, AAP/REUTERS

image caption, Supporters of different candidates have flooded into the capital over the past week

Major Candidates for Prime Minister:

  • The current leader is Manase Sogavere (DCGA Alliance), is seen in a good position to come back to power due to the political spending patterns that favor incumbency. He served four terms as prime minister, but no prime minister was re-elected consecutively
  • Peter Kenilorea Jr., President of the United Party (U.P.), wants to scrap China's defense pact and favors ties with the West. A former United Nations official, he is the son of the islands' first prime minister after independence from Britain
  • Matthew Vale and former Prime Minister Rick Huh (CARE) have formed a coalition focused on education and health and a foreign policy that prioritizes Solomon Islands' national interests.
  • Gordon Darcy LiloSolomon Islands Party for Rural Advancement (CIPRA), a former prime minister campaigning for change.
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What are the concerns about votes?

Beyond geopolitics, analysts say it is the most significant election to stabilize democracy in a country with a history of riots and coups.

The memory of recent riots in the capital Honiara still lingers – including in 2021 when protesters tried to burn down the prime minister's house, seething with anger at the corruption of the political class, persistent poverty and the country's turn to China.

This is the country's second election since the withdrawal of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Committee.

Amid long-standing concerns about practices like Devil's Night, the country has election observers to monitor whether votes meet fair and independent standards. The Australian Educators' Election Watch report, in the last 2019 election, Candidates gave money and other things liberally.

“In the Solomon Islands, elections are mainly fought over local issues and commitments. Candidates with deep pockets and wealthy supporters can win better support and buy votes,” says Dr Keane.

But there is also corruption in post-vote negotiations, where “money, ministerial promises and hotel lock-ups are used to win support for ruling coalitions”. According to Dr Keane's election summary Last week.

image source, AAP/REUTERS

image caption, National and provincial elections are held today in the Solomon Islands

Some politicians have also accused Beijing of election interference, as some researchers point out The Chinese Embassy presented the prizes Fishing nets, knives, water tanks and solar lights to the key province of Malaita, days before the vote.

Previous research by Australian academics found that China, and before that Taiwan, put dollars into “constituency development funds” for parliamentarians, which are considered slush funds to use effectively.

Dr Keane says the pots have flowed only to MPs who supported Prime Minister Sogavere.

Additional reporting by Deepak Bhattarai of BBC Media Action

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