HONIARA (ABC NEWS/REUTERS) — A leading Solomon Islands opposition MP has called on Australia to offer funding to try and ensure the country can hold elections next year.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government has said it wants to extend parliament until after it hosts the Pacific Games in November 2023, for which China has donated a stadium and other sporting venues that are being built by Chinese companies.
Australia will be the second largest contributor to the games, after Pacific Minister Pat Conroy announced in Solomon Islands that Australia would contribute almost $17 million (USD$11.8 million) towards the landmark event.
The United States and other Pacific nations have expressed concern over Solomon Islands’ security ties with China, which they say have regional implications.
China has also sought to strike a sweeping regional trade and security deal with Pacific islands, including governance exchanges.
The Prime Minister’s office said in July that Solomon Islands did not have the resources to host the Pacific Games and hold an election in 2023.
National elections are held every four years, and parliament is due to be dissolved in May 2023.
A bill submitted to parliament and endorsed by the speaker on Monday seeks to alter the constitution and suspend the dissolution of parliament until 31 December 2023, officials said.
An election would need to be held within four months.
A change to the constitution requires two-thirds of parliament to support it.
It is likely to be voted on next month.
Solomon Islands MP Peter Kenilorea Jr told the ABC Australia should offer to fund elections in 2023, to help deal with Sogavare’s concerns about having enough resources to have an election and host the Pacific Games.
“I would like to see similar investments in our democracy and elections, including signals to the government in terms of quelling the argument being made there is no money for elections,” he said.
“This is something that I would also like to see our partners – particularly democracy loving countries – to step up and send those messages.
“Australia has been supportive of Solomon Islands elections historically, but I think those messages and signals need to be made louder and be made known to us in the public as well … while sports are important, so are our democratic processes.”
Kenilorea warned that deferring elections could provoke more civil unrest.
“This is very much in the hearts and minds of Solomon Islanders and the opposition to it is overwhelming — it’s perhaps universal — in terms of opposition to an extension,” he said.
“People just see it as an extension of a corrupt government, so this is something people can’t swallow really … definitely there is a high risk of a flare up again of violence, based on these kinds of moves.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said election funding was “a matter for the Solomon Islands government”.
But it stressed Australia provided significant support for the last Solomon Islands election in 2019 and continued to plough money into programs designed to sustain future elections.
“In the lead up to and during Solomon Islands’ 2019 election, the Australian Government provided support through the Australian Defence Force, Australian Federal Police, Australian Electoral Commission, Australia Assists and the United Nations covering critical electoral processes and logistics,” DFAT said in a statement.
“We continue to partner with the Solomon Islands Electoral Office to support electoral reform and administration, voter awareness and women’s participation in the political process.”
Opposition leader Matthew Wale has also criticised delaying elections and wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that citizens should “air their views” through parliamentary processes.
“There is concern in churches, business and communities,” Douglas Marau, the opposition leader’s press secretary, told Reuters.
He added it was “nonsense” to amend the constitution for a two-week sporting event.
“There have been consultations held and the negative response to the government’s plan is very clear,” he said.
Sogavare switched the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, after being elected that April.
However, the most populous province, Malaita, has opposed ties with China, and an anti-government protest in November 2021 outside parliament led to riots and buildings burnt in Honiara’s Chinatown district.
The riot was cited by Beijing as reason for its security pact with Sogavare’s government.
The security pact allows Chinese police to defend Chinese projects and restore social order.
Honiara and Beijing have denied the pact will allow a Chinese military base.
United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Monday said the US and Pacific nations would “all watch very carefully to see what happens here”……PACNEWS