Solomon Islands: democracy on hold
A parliamentary vote has postponed Solomon Islands’ election from the second half of 2023 to April 2024. The government claims this is because it can’t afford to stage the Pacific Games and an election in the same year, calling into question its priorities and commitment to democratic values. The decision comes at a time when the government is working to suppress criticism of its growing links with China. It raises the suspicion that the incumbent administration will try to use Chinese resources to give itself an advantage when the election finally comes – and use Chinese security cooperation to stamp down on future protests.
The commitment of Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to democracy has been called into question by his decision to postpone the country’s next election.
The election was due in the second half of 2023 – but now it will be held in April 2024, following a constitutional amendment that temporarily suspends the constitution’s rule on parliamentary term limits. It was passed by a parliamentary vote of 37 in favour to 10 against.
The alleged reason? Solomon Islands is hosting a sporting competition and Sogavare says the country can’t afford to do both in the same year.
It’s undoubtedly a moment of prestige that in November 2023 Solomon Islands hosts the Pacific Games for the first time. The pan-Oceania multi-sports event is expected to bring athletes from 24 nations and territories to the islands. But when the government bid to host the event there was no hint it would be at the expense of voters, who have seen their right to have a say put on hold.
The opposition has accused Sogavare of a power grab and of deliberately underfunding the electoral commission. Sogavare even turned down an offer from Australia to fund the election as scheduled, characterising this as foreign interference.
Sogavare has insisted the move is a one-off response to exceptional circumstances. But others are worried the decision sets a dangerous precedent – and it’s hardly the first time the government has been accused of showing scant respect for democratic freedoms.
Government on defensive over China deal
Troublingly, the vote to postpone the election was preceded by several government attacks on media freedom.
In April, the police ordered two journalists not to film Sogavare as he arrived at parliament. In July, the public broadcaster, Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC), lost its status as a state-owned enterprise, which had given it some commercial freedom. Instead it’s now wholly owned and funded by the government. This is no technicality: it enables the government to exert tighter control over the broadcaster, including by directly appointing its board. The move, made with no consultation, came after the government accused SIBC of promoting disunity.
In August, the government announced it would vet all SIBC news and current affairs programmes and said the broadcaster should only air content that reflects positively on the government. It quickly backtracked on this controversial move, saying SIBC retains editorial independence and it only wants to prevent misinformation, but the plan sent a concerning signal.
As well as the election delay, something else lies behind the government’s evident determination to control the narrative: its burgeoning relationship with China.
Sogavare became prime minister for the fourth time following the last election in April 2019. Months later, in September 2019, he suddenly reversed the government’s policy towards China. Solomon Islands was among the diminishing ranks of states that recognised and maintained international relations with Taiwan rather than China. Until recently 15 states did so, six of them Pacific Islands nations, but in 2019 Kiribati and Solomon Islands both switched. China has long been engaged in an economic charm offensive to persuade countries to switch, just has Taiwan has provided extensive aid to urge countries not to.
In Solomon Islands the move came as a shock. This fundamental foreign policy shift hadn’t been debated during the election campaign.
It was a similar story this April, when the two countries announced the signing of a cooperation deal. The leaked text of the secret deal shows that China will give Solomon Islands security support in return for enhanced Chinese access to its ports.
China is aggressively pursuing partnerships around the Pacific as it asserts its global role and contests US maritime power. In May it tried and failed to seal an economic and security deal with 10 Pacific Island states. Its deal with Solomon Islands may be key to normalising its presence in the region.
The country’s links with China have never been put to a public vote. Everything that has happened has come since the country last went to the polls – and now people are denied a say for even longer.
One concern is that the deal could presage China establishing a naval base in Solomon Islands, recognised as occupying a strategic location on the Pacific Rim. Both countries have denied any such plan, although it wasn’t encouraging when in September the government banned all foreign navies from its ports until further notice, after failing to respond to a US ship’s request to dock. The government, which clarified that ships from its long-term partners Australia and New Zealand were exempt, said the measure was to give it time to work on new procedures.
While outside powers including the USA are worried about the prospect of China gaining a new Pacific naval foothold, there are other worries for Solomon Islands civil society. Domestic security forces are receiving training from Chinese counterparts in riot control and weapons use, and under the agreement the government can request the deployment of Chinese security personnel. Civil society is concerned that the violent tactics used by the Chinese state in suppressing dissent, already deployed to crush the Hong Kong democracy movement, might also be used in Solomon Islands.
A sensitive context
Those fears are real because in recent years Solomon Islands has been home to violent protests. The context is one of economic malaise, with high youth unemployment and anger at corruption. Many people in Malaita Province, a culturally distinct group of islands with an active independence movement, feel particular discontent towards the government based on the country’s main island of Guadalcanal.
From 2003 to 2017, a security mission led by Australia and New Zealand was stationed in the country in response to conflict. Repeat anger has focused on businesses owned by the country’s minority Chinese-origin population. Some disaffected people see the community as foreign business owners who don’t contribute to the local economy and employment.
This makes the Chinatown district of the capital, Honiara, a frequent target of violent protests, often led by groups of urban poor young men who live in informal settlements. Chinatown was largely razed to the ground in violent riots that followed the 2006 election, in which Chinese-origin business leaders were accused of wielding unfair influence. Violence came again in Chinatown in April 2019, when Sogavare became prime minister in the face of opposition protests.
Further unrest happened in November 2019, when an initially peaceful protest turned violent, leading to several days of looting and arson. Many of those protesting had come from Malaita, whose Premier, Daniel Sudani, opposed recognition of China. Protesters attempted to storm parliament, the police used teargas and rubber bullets and people then set fire to a parliamentary building. This was followed by arson and looting in Chinatown. Three people were found dead in a burned-out building and over 100 people were arrested.
Sogavare blamed unnamed foreign forces for the violence, and when he survived a no-confidence vote the following month, claimed ‘agents of Taiwan’ had tried to remove him from power.
Australia and New Zealand were quick to send security forces in response to the violence. But future protests seem likely. The Pacific Games could offer one focus – and it could be Chinese forces dealing with violent protesters next time.
Where next for democratic freedoms?
This is a government that is clearly acutely sensitive to criticism of its links with China. That’s particularly the case when people seek transparency and accountability over the use of Chinese resources – including to fund and build venues for the Pacific Games – and question the influence China may buy by giving money to politicians: 39 out of 50 members of parliament received Chinese state funding in 2021.
When China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited the country this May, many journalists weren’t allowed to attend events, and those present were unable to ask questions.
In August, the government said it would ban foreign journalists if they’re not ‘respectful’. This came after a report by Australian broadcaster ABC into growing Chinese influence in the country, which alleged Chinese money is helping Sogavare stay in power. The government has accused foreign media of ‘spreading anti-China sentiment’. In September Sogavare complained the country had been ‘unfairly targeted’ and ‘vilified’ in the media over its relations with China.
The government similarly turned its ire on civil society organisations (CSOs) when they criticised the lack of public consultation over its recognition of China and called for Sogavare’s resignation. The government reacted by accusing them of lacking legal authority and fraudulently receiving funds. CSOs reported that government threats to investigate them had a chilling effect on their work.
Meanwhile, the country’s links with China have never been put to a public vote. Everything that has happened has come since the country last went to the polls – and now people are denied a say for even longer. The incumbent government may see the extra time as an opportunity to ride out the controversy and use Chinese resources to shore up its power. But it should know that linking up with China and then immediately limiting democracy can only look suspicious.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of the Solomon Islands should hold the general election at the earliest opportunity.
The government should refrain from deploying Chinese security forces in response to further protests.
Civil society should work to defend media freedom and the media’s ability to scrutinise the government’s relations with China.
Cover illustration by CIVICUS