SYDNEY - The Solomon Islands’ prime minister was successful in his controversial bid to delay scheduled elections until 2024, as the opposition accused him of undermining democracy on the Pacific nation.
After a day of heated debate, Manasseh Sogavare saw his controversial Constitution Amendment Bill approved by parliament.
It allows him to hold power for at least an extra seven months by delaying national polls that had been scheduled for May.
Mr Sogavare said he was rushing the legislation through because of the risk of protests.
The bill, which passed with 37 votes in favour to 10 against, changes the constitution to allow the election to be delayed until 2024 from 2023. Two lawmakers were absent.
The chamber of commerce in the Pacific archipelago had called for public calm to avoid a repeat of November riots in which shops in the capital Honiara’s Chinatown were burnt down.
Mr Sogavare argued that the Solomon Islands cannot successfully host both the Pacific Games and an election in 2023 because of the logistical requirements.
“We cannot afford to present a country that is politically unstable,” he said, adding an election after May 2023 would be too close to the November games.
Mr Sogavare previously argued that the Solomon Islands could not afford to hold the Pacific Games, a regional athletics meeting for which China is building seven venues and stadiums, and a general election in the same year.
Australia on Tuesday offered to fund the election, prompting a rebuke from Mr Sogavare who said the timing of the offer was "foreign interference".
He told Parliament on Thursday he would nonetheless accept Australia's funding offer after Parliament passed the Bill.
Opposition members have questioned Mr Sogavare's justification for seeking to postpone the election.
"There was never any need to choose between holding the elections and hosting the Pacific Games," opposition leader Matthew Wale said.
He said that voters he had consulted had rejected delaying the election.
"There is no worthy reason but a power grab by the prime minister," he said.
Former Prime Minister Rick Hou said delaying the election was “morally wrong”.
Controversy over the delay comes amid concern among opposition parties about Mr Sogavare's relationship with China, which provides a fund through which he distributed 20.9 million Solomon Island dollars (S$3.58 million) to 39 out of 50 Members of Parliament in 2021.
Mr Sogavare's government struck a security pact with China in April that allows Chinese police to restore social order and protect Chinese infrastructure projects.
Anti-government riots in November were quelled by Australian police working with Solomon Island forces under a long-standing security arrangements.
Another opposition member opposed to delaying the election, Mr Alfred Efona, said the Pacific Games should not be the reason "for us to adopt any communist ideas, behaviours and approaches hostile to the way we treat our democratic practices including the voice of the people".
While the election is delayed, the Solomon Islands will have a caretaker government for four months in 2024, cabinet members told parliament.
Mr Sogavare denied any democratic principles have been breached by changing the constitution, and criticised media coverage.
Fisheries Minister Nester Giro, supporting the election delay, said there were “no foreign powers influencing me”. AFP, REUTERS