The Solomon Islands’ pro-Beijing prime minister has proposed changing the constitution to delay scheduled elections, officials confirmed yesterday, fueling concerns for the future of democracy in the Pacific nation.
After months of speculation, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has formally put a “constitution amendment bill” to parliament that would delay next year’s election — citing the burden of hosting the Pacific Games, a sporting event, in the same year.
The proposal, obtained by Agence France-Presse, seeks to suspend the dissolution of “the eleventh Parliament on December 31,” meaning the general election would not happen until 2024 at the earliest.
The Solomon Islands parliament is expected to discuss the constitutional changes on Sept. 5, a parliamentary official told reporters.
Sogavare, a four-time prime minister who has twice been ousted by votes of no confidence, is facing another challenge to his prime ministry, this time over his increasingly close ties with China.
After widespread rioting in the capital, Honiara, demanding his ouster late last year, Sogavare signed a secretive security pact with Beijing that — according to a leaked draft — would allow him to call in Chinese security forces to quell further unrest.
Western powers are wary that, in return, Sogavare could provide China with a military foothold in a strategically important part of the world.
At home, Sogavare’s detractors see the effort to change the constitution as another move by a leader who has become increasingly autocratic since his latest stint in power began in 2019.
“So it’s happening. PM Soga has submitted the Constitution Amendment Bill to postpone the dissolution of the 11th Parl,” Matthew Wale, leader of the Solomons opposition, wrote on Twitter. “I encourage all citizens to use the Bills Committee process to air their views.”
Moves to muzzle the country’s public broadcaster have only fueled concerns about the trajectory of Sogavare’s rule.
The 67-year-old says he only wants to defer the elections because the nation “do not have enough funds” to host both the Pacific Games and an election in the same year.
“We are simply moving the national elections to after we host the Pacific Games 2023,” he said in a speech last month.
China is financing a national stadium complex reportedly worth US$53 million to host the Games, and Australia yesterday said it would help with funding.
Australia “can’t keep pretending Sogavare wants a democracy in the Solomon Islands,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute director Michael Shoebridge said.
“He’s used Chinese money and will use Chinese security forces to stay in power. Now, like dictators through history, he’s changing the constitution to avoid elections,” Shoebridge said.
Earlier yesterday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the US is doubling down on its investment in the Pacific as she concluded a five-nation visit to the region.
“The future will be written here in the Pacific,” Sherman said at an agreement-signing event in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.
Critics have accused the US of neglecting the region and allowing China’s influence to flourish.
Sherman said the US has always been a Pacific nation.
“And so we are doubling down on our investment here in the Pacific,” Sherman said. “Our relationships, our partnerships, regional organizations.”
Asked if she felt the US or China was winning the battle for influence in the region, Sherman said she did not see it quite that way.
“It’s not so much a battle,” she said. “I think that countries try to have relations with every country they believe will help them move forward. And the United States does not ask any country to choose between us and China, or any other country and China.”
Additional reporting by AP
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