Politics

Solomon Islands’ Leader, a Friend of China, Gets an Election Delayed

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — When Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare bet big on China, cutting the Solomon Islands’ ties with Taiwan and signing a bundle of secretive agreements with Beijing, critics worried that the budding friendship would weaken the Pacific Island nation’s young democracy.

On Thursday, his opponents say, Mr. Sogavare validated their fears: He pushed through Parliament a constitutional amendment that delayed next year’s national elections until 2024. That means he will face voters at what could be a more advantageous time for him, after the Solomon Islands hosts the Pacific Games, an international sporting event to be held in a complex that China is building.

“The bill does not in any way inhibit or prohibit the right to vote,” Mr. Sogavare said as he opened debate in Parliament with a speech that portrayed the postponement as a minor issue. He added that his government continued to “uphold the principles of democracy and uphold national interests.”

Mr. Sogavare, whose coalition government has a clear majority in Parliament, had been laying the groundwork for the delay for months, claiming that the country could not afford to hold both the vote and the Pacific Games in the same year.

Opposition leaders argued that the Solomon Islands could and should do both. Australia’s foreign minister said this week that her government had offered to pay for the elections to be held as scheduled, expanding on similar assistance that Australia had offered in the past.

“The government is saying it’s a one-off to accommodate the Games, but many of us look at that as an excuse,” Peter Kenilorea Jr., the deputy opposition leader, said in an interview. “It’s directly linked to China’s influence, and trying to keep certain people in power.”

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment. But while prolonging Mr. Sogavare’s tenure may benefit China, which has increased its focus on the Pacific and signed a security deal with his government this year, analysts and local observers believe that the main driver of the delay is the prime minister.

China is building a stadium in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital, that will be used for the Pacific Games next year.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

An emotional leader with what some describe as a streak of paranoia, Mr. Sogavare has served as prime minister three times before, never remaining popular enough to finish a term.

In this case, people who have known him for years say that Mr. Sogavare sees the Games — and the new stadium on the main road in the capital, Honiara — as his crowning achievement.

Delaying the election, his critics argue, is political opportunism: He hopes to win over the public with a sports spectacular, while also giving his coalition more time to line up deals with the Chinese government and Chinese companies, with all the infrastructure, resource extraction and influx of money that could entail.

“He thinks he’s saving the Solomon Islands,” said Archbishop Chris Cardone, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the island nation, an American from Long Island who has spent 32 years in the country. But, he added, “the prime minister is really acting like a dictator in the model of Xi.”

Mr. Sogavare has begun to resemble Xi Jinping, China’s leader, in other ways. He has become noticeably less tolerant of questions, and quicker to see enemies all around.

In Parliament on Thursday, he said he was “extremely disappointed” by Australia’s disclosure about the offer of electoral aid, which he called “an attempt to directly interfere into our domestic affairs.”

And before the session opened — in a round, gray parliamentary assembly building paid for by the United States in the 1990s — government officials told journalists outside that photos could no longer be taken in the public parking lot, because Mr. Sogavare had been angered by reporters who filmed him as he entered a few weeks earlier.

Mr. Sogavare with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Honiara in May. Credit…Xinhua, via Associated Press

“Soga wants to hang on as long as he can; he’s not the first politician in the world to be like that,” said Graeme Smith, a Pacific Islands expert at the Australian National University.

“Where the P.R.C. gets the credit,” he added, referring to the People’s Republic of China, “is they seem to have put him in a financial position to meet the needs of enough of his M.P.s to assure him of his job, no matter how erratic he gets.”

Solomon Islands politics “is all about the money,” Archbishop Cardone said. When Mr. Sogavare faced a no-confidence vote last year, leaked government documents show, he distributed tens of thousands of dollars to fellow members of Parliament from a slush fund that started with money from Taiwan, only to be replenished by China.

Whatever its cause, the election delay is another setback for a country of 700,000 people and nearly 1,000 islands, and a potential spark for social unrest.

Since gaining independence from Britain in the wake of World War II, the Solomon Islands has been repeatedly shaken by violence, in ways that still shape the present.

Ethnic and regional tensions exploded in 1998, with rebels on the main island, Guadalcanal — where the capital, Honiara, is situated — fighting to overthrow the dominant minority from the province of Malaita. As the unrest continued, a prime minister from Malaita was deposed in 2000 — and succeeded by Mr. Sogavare.

Many Malaitans have never forgiven him for playing an instrumental role in toppling a prime minister they respected. And, after seeing him cozy up to Chinese Communists — who have always been eyed warily in a country that is deeply Christian, without a separation of church and state — their anger has intensified. Malaitans were among the leaders of antigovernment protests in November that led to the torching of 65 buildings, including most of Honiara’s Chinatown.

The central market in Honiara last month. Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Many islanders now worry that the postponement of the election, to no later than April 2024, will exacerbate the unresolved tensions.

“Some people want change, they want new leaders,” said Phillip Subu, president of the Malaita Youth Council, a group that works with young people in the island province. “They don’t want to wait.”

In Parliament on Thursday, these issues played out in tones both high-minded and accusatory, especially among Malaitan ministers on opposite sides of the debate.

Matthew Wale, the opposition leader, whose mother is Malaitan, called the bill “a hijacking of the people’s right to exercise their vote.” John Dean Kuku, the leader of the independent group in Parliament, said it would “bring us injury with no cure.”

Mr. Sogavare’s allies focused on the benefits they said the Pacific Games would bring, including dormitories that would later be used by local schools. Some of them attacked the news media and, echoing authoritarian governments elsewhere, accused the opposition of catering tonefarious “foreign elements,” like Australia and the United States.

“Shame on you,” said Bradley Tovosia, the mining minister, who often works closely with Chinese officials, shouting at the opposition. “You talk to people you’re not representing.”

In the public gallery, only a handful of people watched. A wall near the entrance celebrates the Constitution, enacted in 1978, featuring a photo of those who wrote it. They include Peter Kenilorea, the Solomon Islands’ first prime minister and the father of Mr. Kenilorea, the deputy opposition leader.

In the photo, he is smiling with visible pride. Four and a half decades later, his son expressed disappointment in Thursday’s result.

“It’s very much dictatorial,” Mr. Kenilorea said. “A vote delayed is a vote denied.”

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