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In the Solomon Islands, legislative elections crucial for security in the Pacific

In this Pacific archipelago, Wednesday's legislative elections come down more to a struggle of foreign influences than to a battle of domestic politics.

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In the Solomon Islands, legislative elections crucial for security in the Pacific

In this Pacific archipelago, Wednesday's legislative elections come down more to a struggle of foreign influences than to a battle of domestic politics. The main countries affected by this election are China and Australia, as evidenced by the advertising posters in the capital of the Solomon Islands. Giant “Radio Australia” signs can be seen on Honiara Road, while police cars are flanked by “China Aid” stickers.

A former British colony, the Solomon Islands have long been close to Westerners, particularly Taiwan and Australia. But these privileged ties were broken in 2019 when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who had just come to power, decided to turn his back on Taiwan to recognize China diplomatically. Since then its new ally has invested in the archipelago, this nation among the least developed in the world. Beijing has notably built a state-of-the-art medical center and a stadium that can accommodate 10,000 spectators. In 2022, the two countries continued their rapprochement with a security pact, the terms of which remain secret, causing former Western allies to fear that the Solomon Islands could become another Chinese military base in the Pacific. Beijing's presence is already clearly visible on these islands, where its police officers train residents in shooting and martial arts.

According to Edward Acton Cavanough, author of a book on the country ("Divided Isles: Solomon Islands and the China Switch", untranslated), Manasseh Sogarave considers himself a "passionate nationalist" who believes that the sovereignty of the country requires an alliance with China. The outgoing prime minister has repeatedly denied that his powerful ally posed a threat and warned against foreign interference. On the contrary, he promised to strengthen relations with Beijing if he was re-elected.

Facing him, the opposition would like to break the growing influence of the Asian giant. “Over the past five years, China has been involved in many cases. It’s really worrying at the moment,” Daniel Suidani, one of the main opposition figures, told AFP. He accuses Beijing of interfering in the elections, using actors close to it to keep elected representatives favorable to China in Parliament. “They are involved in other things, so there is no doubt that they must be involved in the elections. This is what they have been doing for some time,” he stressed. Mobilized for a long time against Chinese influence, he had prevented the construction of mobile telephone towers by the Huawei company when he was head of the government of the province of Malatai.

These positions cost Daniel Suidani his mandate as governor. He was abruptly removed from office in February 2023 by a motion of censure passed when he was not present. He denounces a political maneuver by the Sogarave government to silence an adversary, while observers affirm that the Prime Minister is showing increasing authoritarianism. Last year, he faced a wave of condemnation after announcing that he would push back the election date by seven months. “He centralized and controlled power in a way that previous prime ministers had not,” said Clive Moore, a historian specializing in the archipelago.

In the streets of the capital, hundreds of people mounted on pick-ups chanted campaign slogans on the eve of the election. On the outskirts of the city, a crowd of supporters of former Prime Minister Darcy Lilo were demanding a change of government. In this country of 720,000 inhabitants, elections are sometimes violent. To prevent excesses this year, alcohol will be banned throughout the archipelago before the vote. But eventful or not, the vote will be observed abroad. “Everyone knows that this election will be closely watched by the United States, China and other Pacific island countries,” says Anouk Ride, a Solomon Islands expert at the Australian National University (ANU).

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