Solomons' pro-China PM moves to delay election by changing Constitution

Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare is facing another challenge to his premiership over his close ties with China. PHOTO: AFP

HONIARA (AFP) - Solomon Islands' pro-Beijing prime minister has proposed changing the Constitution to delay scheduled elections, officials confirmed on Tuesday (Aug 9), fuelling concerns for the future of democracy in the Pacific nation.

After months of speculation, Mr Manasseh Sogavare has formally put a Constitution Amendment Bill to Parliament that would delay next year's election - citing the burden of hosting the Pacific Games, a sporting event, in the same year.

The proposal, obtained by AFP, seeks to suspend the dissolution of the 11th Parliament on Dec 31, meaning the general election would not happen until 2024 at the earliest.

The Solomon Islands Parliament is expected to discuss the constitutional changes on Sept 5, a parliamentary official told AFP.

Mr Sogavare, a four-time prime minister who has twice been ousted by votes of no confidence, is facing another challenge to his premiership, this time over his increasingly close ties with China.

After widespread rioting in the capital Honiara demanding his ouster late last year, Mr Sogavare signed a secretive security pact with Beijing that - according to a leaked draft - would allow him to call in Chinese security forces to quell further unrest.

Western powers are wary that, in return, Mr Sogavare could provide China with a military foothold in a strategically important part of the world.

Senior United States diplomat Wendy Sherman this week visited the nation of 800,000 people to mark the 80th anniversary of World War II's Battle of Guadalcanal.

During the visit she pointedly warned her hosts about a new struggle against "leaders who believe that coercion, pressure, and violence are tools to be used with impunity".

"It is up to us to decide if we want to continue having societies where people are free to speak their minds," she said.

At home, Mr Sogavare's detractors see the effort to change the Constitution as another move by a leader who has become increasingly autocratic since his latest stint in power began in 2019.

"So it's happening. PM Soga has submitted the Constitution Amendment Bill to postpone the dissolution of the 11th Parl (parliament)," Mr Matthew Wale, leader of the Solomons opposition, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "I encourage all citizens to use the Bills Committee process to air their views."

Moves to muzzle the country's public broadcaster have only fuelled concerns about the trajectory of Mr Sogavare's rule.

The 67-year-old insists he wants to defer the elections only because the Solomon Islands "do not have enough funds" to host both the Pacific Games and an election in the same year.

"We are simply moving the national elections to after we host the Pacific Games 2023," he said in a speech last month.

China is financing a national stadium complex reportedly worth US$53 million (S$73 million) to host the Games and Australia on Tuesday announced it would help with funding.

Australia "can't keep pretending Sogavare wants a democracy in the Solomon Islands", said Mr Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"He's used Chinese money and will use Chinese security forces to stay in power. Now, like dictators through history, he's changing the Constitution to avoid elections."

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