Solomon Islands votes in election watched by China, US for regional security impact

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 6:11 PM

(Reuters) – The Solomon Islands began voting in a national election on Wednesday, the first since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in 2022 struck a security pact with China and drew the Pacific Islands nation closer to Beijing.

The election outcome will be closely watched by the United States, China and Australia for its potential impact on regional security, although Solomon Islands voters will be focused on struggling health services, education and inadequate roads, opposition parties said.

The Solomon Islands archipelago has a population of just 700,000 but occupies a strategic position 1,600 km (990 miles) northeast of Australia.

Polling booths opened at 7 a.m. on Wednesday (2000 GMT on Tuesday), with voting in national and provincial elections being held on the same day for the first time. Police from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji are assisting the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force with security.

Sogavare switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing soon after becoming prime minister in 2019, and has pledged to strengthen relations with China, which is building ports, roads and a telecommunications network in the Solomon Islands.

National broadcaster SIBC showed opposition leader Matthew Wale, of the Solomon Islands Democratic Party, casting his vote in his electorate in Malaita province on Wednesday morning.

Wale’s party has formed a coalition with the Democratic Alliance Party, pledging to boost education and fix hospitals that often run out of medicine, and has previously criticised the Chinese police presence in Solomon Islands.

Another prominent opposition candidate, Peter Kenilorea Jr of the United Party, has said he wants the China security pact scrapped and more infrastructure partnerships with Western countries to reduce Beijing’s influence.

Sogavare, running as leader of the Ownership, Unity and Responsibility Party, has pointed to hosting the Pacific Games, with stadiums donated by China, as a major achievement.

Election observer groups from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific, Japan, Europe and the U.S. will monitor voting and counting.

Closely watched will be results in Malaita, the most populous province, which has long criticised deepening China ties and is where opposition parties hope to gain seats.

The 50 members of the national parliament are elected for a four-year term. The prime minister is selected after polling day by a vote of newly elected lawmakers, a process that can take several weeks.

The electoral commission urged voters to keep their vote secret and avoid vote buying, which has been a widespread practice in past elections.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Jamie Freed)