The last election?

| April 14, 2024

Solomon Islanders are set to vote on 17 April in an election that has significance within and beyond the country’s borders. It is the first chance for them to vote on policy directions that the coalition led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has taken and may change or consolidate his power.

Since Sogavare was elected by his parliamentary peers in April 2019, Solomon Islanders have lived through several shocks. First there were riots in April 2019, precursors to a much larger riot in November 2021. Both incidents related to grievances about the ruling political coalition and perceived foreign control of government decisions and the economy.

There was a switch in bilateral relations from Taiwan to China in September 2019, a decision announced before a parliamentary inquiry concluded or provincial governments had their say. The omission contributed to tensions between the prime minister’s office and the Malaitan provincial government, especially its former premier, Daniel Suidani. Those tensions resulted in Suidani’s removal from office in a vote of confidence in February, allegedly after money was offered to members of the provincial assembly to take him down.

Then there was Covid-19, which prompted a 28-month state of emergency. Sogavare’s emergency powers included rights to decide who could enter the country. He could also ban events, restrict inter-island travel and suspend access to media outlets. A decision to ban Facebook was ultimately not implemented but pointed to an anti-democratic trend. With even much-needed doctors and nurses sacked over strike plans or a critical social media post, rising centralisation of power and restrictions on free speech became clear. Criticism of the coalition has become more muted or is kept private.

Governance has become less transparent. No auditor general’s annual report on the state of government finances has been published in the past five years. The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has released no annual report since 2018. Allegations of corruption, including alleged bribery of High Court officials, are unresolved.

Foreign money, meanwhile, has helped consolidate the ruling coalition’s power. Constituency development funds—discretionary money given to members of parliament— have a long history in Solomon Islands, but in 2021 the money, now coming from China, was for the first time allocated not to all MPs but only to members of the coalition. Aid funds from other countries tended to be directed into preparations for the South Pacific Games of late 2023.

So Sogavare and his coalition have enjoyed unprecedented powers and discretionary funds over the past five years; they have also benefited from hosting the games. So it may seem to outsiders that these advantages should result in easy re-election. However these are not usual times, with many grievances against the current coalition and increasingly visible and organised opposition groups making election outcomes unpredictable.

Opposition parties include the Solomon Islands Democratic Party, headed by Matthew Wale and offering candidates in 36 of the 50 electorates. There are also the Democratic Alliance Party (led by former prime minister Rick Houenipwela, with 12 candidates) and the United Party (of Peter Kenilorea, with 18 candidates). New parties have emerged, raising the chances of electoral upsets. They notably include the People’s Liberal Democratic Party (headed by preacher Benedict Maesua, with 44 candidates) and the Iumi for Change Party (led by a former advisor to Suidani, with eight candidates).

Meanwhile, Sogavare’s Ownership Unity Responsibility Party is fielding candidates in 41 electorates. Its previous allies include the Kadere Party, Democratic Alliance Party and Peoples First Party. Any of them and indeed some of the other parties could help form a government.

Voters’ choices will depend on issues including their self-interest (whether in the form of personal cash payments or progress in their communities), loyalty (influenced by relatives and church networks) and ideology (for example, inclinations towards either democracy or strongman rule). Voters also consider specific local issues and the characters of candidates. Many candidates will win with small percentages, edging out rivals in a first-past-the-post system. Intense political localism makes even constituency-level results hard to predict.

After an election, a new ruling coalition is typically formed at a hotel in Honiara, a major challenge for the gathered MPs being agreement on who should be prime minister (and be confirmed as such in a later parliamentary vote). MPs are supplied with food, accommodation and sometimes bribes and promises of ministerial appointments. Foreign companies sometimes pay the bills and thereby exert great influence on the outcome, securing later government access and privileges along the way.

Even after parliament votes for a prime minister, a coalition may not be stable. Opposition MPs frequently challenge governments to survive votes of confidence. Also, government members may be removed by High Court challenges to electoral results, which puts power in the hands of judges and investigating police.

Throughout the post-election process there is heightened risk of social unrest, such as rioting and looting. Research across the Pacific indicates that the probability of such conflict rises amid political transition when crowds gather amid grievances about governance and foreign control and interference.

Australia and its Western allies play important roles, in part by funding the election, backing the assistance given by the UN Development Program. They also transport ballots and help with security of polling stations. The UN agency and the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission will be under intense pressure to respond to misinformation or allegations that they are biased or subject to undue interference. So far they have weathered criticism, but the independence and credibility of commission will be tested and will be key to holding an election that is popularly viewed as legitimate.

Under various agreements, Australia New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and China will deploy armed personnel to provide security in support of the local police. This will be controversial. Will these forces allow parades and protests? What will they do if ballot boxes are stolen or if electoral officials refuse to allow outside scrutiny of their work? Will they react if gangs attempt intimidation of voters or candidates? And what happens if candidates question the right of these armed foreigners to be in the country? These situations have all arisen before.

Also, the response of the Solomon police and justice system to major transgressions of the law in previous elections has been lacklustre. For example, there are still no prosecutions in a case of MPs being shot at in 2014.

There is also a risk of misinformation fuelling conflict. Local and foreign officials will have to try to quell rumours in social media or face-to-face gossip, heading off unrest.

Ideally, adequate election funding and the presence of foreign security forces will encourage voters to ignore bribes and threats. If that happens, the outcome should better reflect the preferences of the people, will be more widely accepted and will give less cause for rioting.

Power will be in the hands of the people on election day, but the subsequent process of politicians building and retaining political power, and how they abuse or share it, will be just as important in determining the direction of the Solomon Islands.

This article was published by The Strategist.