Members of parliament (MPs) in the troubled Solomon Islands will today elect a prime minister for the second time in three weeks, following a tumultuous period of looting and arson and a divide over whether to recognize China or Taiwan.
Fred Fono, the government's candidate in the new election, has vowed to "stick with Taiwan," while his opponent Manasseh Sogavare has said he will shift diplomatic recognition to China.
Fono said yesterday that swapping Taipei for Beijing would be a strategic misjudgement for an impoverished nation.
"There will be immense consequences for the region and the Solomon Islands in particular," he said. "There is no substitution for Taiwan when it comes to rural development in the Solomon Islands, and even mighty China is not going to replace an irreplaceable Taiwan as far as my government is concerned."
"How will members of parliament fulfill their promises to their constituents?" he asked, adding that China would not fund rural development because its main interest in the region was containing Taiwan.
Australian and New Zealand troop and police reinforcements arrived last month to reimpose order after riots that targeted Chinese residents -- the worst violence since an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived in 2003 to end five years of civil unrest.
On the eve of the election, the opposition parties claimed to have 25 of the possible 50 votes, to 23 for the government. Another two MPs are in custody on charges connected to the riots, which followed the election of Snyder Rini as prime minister last month.
Rini's contentious election victory had triggered days of destruction by angry mobs in Honiara, amid opposition claims that Rini had accepted money from prominent ethnic Chinese businessmen and Taiwanese officials.
Australia has demanded that China and Taiwan keep out of Solomon Islands politics.
But the Solomon Islands also accused Australia of political interference and Rini called for Canberra's most senior diplomat in Honiara, High Commissioner Patrick Cole, to be withdrawn.
"There are clear indications that your high commissioner here in Honiara has been involved to the extent of trying to influence the choice of candidates for the post of the prime minister and expressing dissatisfaction over my candidature," Rini told Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Rini's accusation followed the leaking of an e-mail by an Australian official attached to the peacekeeping force. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the e-mail's contents as suggesting that Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole attempted to influence the outcome of the election through business and political figures.