Solomon Islands voters go to polls with China’s influence in focus

solomon islands voters go to polls with china’s influence in focus

Solomon Islands voters go to polls with China’s influence in focus

Honiara, Solomon Islands — Solomon Islanders in shanty towns and far-flung islands voted Wednesday in an election that will decide whether their nation draws closer to China — with consequences for the entire South Pacific.

In the capital Honiara, voters tramped through a muddy parking lot to cast their ballots, with many eager to have their say on the big-power rivalry that has reached their tropical shores.

READ: Solomon Islands leader ‘appalled’ by Japan on Fukushima water

Incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has wholeheartedly embraced China, holding Beijing’s authoritarian government up as the key to the islands’ economic development.

His main challengers view Beijing’s growing influence with a mix of scepticism and alarm.

Honiara lawyer Eddie Toifai, in his 40s, welcomed the promised flood of Chinese aid, but said it had failed to make life better, in what is one of the world’s least-developed nations.

“We have severed ties with Taiwan and we have developed ties with China,” he told AFP from his spot in a slow-moving voting queue.

“For me, I was hoping that would bring change to this country, but I’m yet to see that happen.”

Even inside an inner-city polling centre — a co-opted art gallery — voters were reminded of the seismic geopolitical forces at play.

READ: Solomon Islands police officers head to China for training

On one wall hung a painted portrait of former US president John F. Kennedy, whose Patrol Boat sank nearby during World War II.

Across the room, an official from the recently re-opened US Embassy in Honiara sat quietly observing as citizens cast their paper ballots.

Voting in ‘Mudland’

China has funded several large projects that are impossible to miss on Honiara’s main road, including a 10,000-seat athletics stadium and a medical centre still under construction.

But in the forested hills outside the city, in a waterlogged gully known as “Mudland”, locals say it makes little difference.

Villager Robert Bara, 61, said he was worried about scraping together enough money to send his children to school.

“I have to support them financially,” he said on his way to vote inside the church that doubled as a village polling center.

In a wooden roadside shack, where locals sell single cigarettes and betel nut for chewing, Bara and his friends later laughed about their newfound role in “geopolitics”.

Naked children played on the packed dirt floor of a stilted wooden house nearby.

Many voters fret that life is getting tougher in the nation that cheerfully dubs itself the “Hapi Isles”.

“Many times we run short of medicine and places for sleeping (in hospitals). We just sleep on the floor,” teacher Hilda Nuake told AFP back in Honiara.

“I want scholarships for my children to study but there is nothing there. I have to tell my daughter she is better off just getting married,” said Wilma Junior.

Election trouble

Police from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are on hand to keep the peace in a nation where elections often spell trouble.

The Chinese embassy in Honiara has erected a temporary two-meter steel fence outside its front gate, which some locals now jokingly call “the Great Wall of China”.

Solomon Islands has veered into China’s orbit under the mercurial Sogavare, who signed a security pact with Beijing in 2022.

Although the final details are murky, Australia and the United States fear the pact is the first step towards a permanent Chinese military base in the South Pacific.

Sogavare’s embrace of Beijing in 2019 partly fuelled a wave of anti-government riots that tore through the Chinatown district in the capital Honiara.

Violence returned in 2021, when angry mobs tried to storm parliament, torched Chinatown and attempted to raze Sogavare’s home.

Picking winners

Voting day is an immense logistical challenge in Solomon Islands, a nation of some 720,000 people spread across hundreds of volcanic islands and coral atolls.

Ballot boxes and voting papers have been despatched by boat, car and helicopter to the many far-flung villages.

Voters are tasked with electing the 50 members that make up the national parliament.

Once elected, these MPs, many of them independents, will coalesce into “camps” — scrambling to round up unaligned politicians in the race to form a ruling majority.

As part of the opaque horse trading that goes on behind closed doors, they will also anoint a prime minister.

Election officials have cautioned that the entire process, from vote counting to coalition building, could stretch on for weeks.

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