Pro-China Sogavare out of the race as Solomon Islands votes for next leader

By Thomson Reuters Apr 29, 2024 | 10:24 PM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands prime minister who drew his nation close to China, sharpening the United States’ focus on the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands, has bowed out of the race for leader after an inconclusive election.

Sogavare is known for his unpredictable diplomacy. He criticised neighbour Australia, snubbed a White House meeting with Pacific leaders because he said he wanted to avoid a lecture, and declared “I’m back home” while stepping off a plane in Beijing a few months later.

At election rallies, Sogavare said he had put Solomon Islands on the map by striking a security pact with China. Yet he only narrowly won his East Choiseul seat during Wednesday’s vote, as opposition parties highlighted how health services ran out of medicine as Beijing built sporting stadiums.

“He has bowed out because of the poor performance of his party,” said Australian National University Pacific expert Graeme Smith.

Solomon Islands lawmakers will vote for a prime minister on Thursday, and Sogavare’s party, which lost half its seats, has nominated former Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele as its candidate.

Opposition parties, who criticised the arrival of Chinese police in the archipelago in 2022, have formed a coalition, and will also seek to woo independents to reach the 26 seats needed to form a government.

The son of Seventh Day Adventist missionaries, Sogavare’s thundering delivery in parliament was reminiscent of a preacher, and his rhetoric against Western-style democracy was often extreme, analysts said.

Lowy Institute research fellow Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat in the Solomon Islands, said Sogavare has been a polarising figure, and “a lightning rod for international scrutiny, which also put a great deal of pressure on the national government”.

“MPs may have decided this time around that a less strident figure would have a better chance of being accepted by an already frustrated community, and may reduce some of the recent tensions with international partners,” he said.

Manele has “a strong track record of working well with all international partners”, he added.

The 2022 security pact with China, details of which have never been disclosed, raised concerns China would increase its navy presence and upset neighbours including Australia, the biggest aid donor and traditional security partner.

Sogavare denied there were plans to establish a Chinese military base, which the United States said would cross a red line, but Beijing used the Honiara foothold to lobby other Pacific Islands to accept a Chinese police presence.

Sogavare refused U.S. offers of millions of dollars in infrastructure funding, telling the United Nations General Assembly that China’s aid was less restrictive.

He skipped a ceremony to mark the World War Two battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, attended by former U.S. President John F Kennedy’s daughter, U.S. ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy. John F Kennedy was saved by Solomon Islanders while serving in the war.

In 2022, Sogavare’s government blocked the U.S. Coast Guard and British navy from refuelling on a patrol for illegal fishing.

On Monday, Sogavare said he was “under pressure from the United States and Western allies”, after switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, and his time as prime minister “has not been easy”.

Sogavare has held the prime minister’s role four times, and was previously removed as leader because the government said he became “lost in conspiracies”, Smith said.

Sogavare become unhappy with Australia in 2006, Smith said, after Australian police on a decade-long peace-keeping mission raided his office looking for evidence on Attorney-General Julian Moti. The Australian-born Moti was wanted in Australia for child sexual assault, and was later deported.

Sogavare accused Canberra of meddling in Solomon Islands internal affairs, and demanded the withdrawal of Australian police.

In 2021, Sogavare asked Australia to return its police to help restore order in Honiara during anti-government riots where his family home was also torched. Six months later he struck a security pact with China.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Miral Fahmy)