The Solomon Islands government has successfully delayed the country’s national elections, effectively extending the term of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare who has moved quickly to leverage deepening ties with Beijing to solidify his power.
The vote passed with 37 out of the Parliament’s 50 MPs in support. This comes after a report last year revealed 39 Solomon MPs received funds from a Beijing-backed slush fund.
The constitutional amendment will delay the dissolution of the 11th Solomons Parliament from May 2023 until Dec. 31, 2023 with the election to be held in April 2024.
Prime Minister Sogavare claimed the government could not afford to run the election at the same time as the Pacific Games due in late 2023.
“We cannot afford to present a country that is politically unstable,” the prime minister told Parliament, according to Reuters.
In response, opposition leader Matthew Wale called it a “power grab.”
“There was never any need to choose between holding the elections and hosting the Pacific Games,” he told Parliament. “There is no worthy reason but a power grab by the prime minister.”
While fellow opposition MP, Alfred Efona, said the Pacific Games was no reason for the country to “adopt any communist ideas, behaviours and approaches hostile to the way we treat our democratic practices including the voice of the people.”
Australia’s Offer to Fund Election Called an ‘Assault on Democracy’
In response to Sogavare’s claims that the government could not afford the vote, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her government was happy to fund the election.
Prime Minister Sogavare responded by calling the offer “foreign interference” while claiming it was an “assault” on the Solomons democracy.
“The timing of the public media announcement by the Australian government is in effect a strategy to influence how members of Parliament will vote on this Bill,” he said.
Yet, Sogavare said he would accept Australia’s offer anyway.
“Now they’ve offered, so get ready, brother, to fund the costs. It’s a big cost, Mr. Speaker, the Electoral Commission needs a lot of money,” he said. “Then you offer, you should prepare to give the money you said you wanted to give us.”
Wong’s move was criticised from some corners, with Blake Johnson, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, telling The Examiner that it gave Sogavare “ammunition” to distract from the country’s internal issues.
Sogavare is dealing with an increasingly unhappy populace, culminating in riots last year in the capital Honiara that saw the Chinatown District razed.
The decision by Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian forces to step in was seen by some experts as alleviating pressure on Sogavare and giving him breathing space to placate his Cabinet and deepen ties with Beijing.
Sogavare’s Power Play Moving Ahead
South Pacific expert Cleo Paskal has repeatedly warned that Sogavare’s intention is to do whatever possible to stay in power.
His earlier decision to allow the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, the Mercy, into the country while blocking U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the Oliver Henry, was his latest power play.
“The Mercy is very popular with the electorate. So for those number of MPs—who Sogavare needs to change the Constitution—if the Mercy had been blocked, it would have been bad for them electorally,” Paskal previously told The Epoch Times.
“He is supervising and preparing to trigger a situation where there’s civil dissent, either a false flag event or real demonstration against his attempt to change to the Constitution,” she said, adding that Sogavare does not want “any foreign vessels floating around in his waters except maybe the Chinese.”
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Earlier this year, Sogavare signed a security pact with Beijing to allow Chinese Communist Party troops, weapons, and naval ships to be stationed in the Solomons—located near Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. territory of Guam.
Paskal also said Beijing was working to capitalise—and facilitate—the weakening of democracies across the region so it can insert its own influence.
Over the last few months, several Pacific governments have presided over increasingly unstable democratic systems, including the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, and Kiribati.
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