The opposition leader of Solomon Islands has blasted a push by the prime minister to delay the 2023 election, saying the move is the “power grab” he foresaw when Manasseh Sogavare signed a controversial security deal with China earlier this year.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind this is a power grab,” Matthew Wale said of the bill introduced by Sogavare’s government to extend parliament. “It’s all orchestrated.”
Elections are held in Solomon Islands every four years and parliament was due to be dissolved in May next year. However, Solomon Islands is set to host the Pacific Games in November 2023, and Sogavare has sought to delay the dissolution of parliament until 31 December 2023, with an election to be held within four months.
“If we’re amending the constitution to postpone elections at someone’s whim, we’re setting precedents about what can be done, toying around and mucking around with the constitution, that’s not very good,” Wale told the Guardian.
“It’s an abuse of the people’s right to exercise their vote.”
The reason offered by the prime minister for delaying the elections was that Solomon Islands did not have the resources to host the Pacific Games and hold an election in 2023, an explanation that Wale called “just silly”.
“It’s a terrible excuse, a lame excuse, absolutely baseless,” he said. “We’re playing around with the constitution for some Games. The Tokyo Olympics was postponed for an entire year. So we’ve got these specific Games that take precedence over an election. We’ve lost any sense of perspective on these things.”
Wale said he feared postponing the election could lead to unrest, which he had serious concerns about, particularly now that Solomon Islands had China as a security partner.
“There is widespread public opposition to the prime minister’s bill and, of course, it’s in the future yet, but if there should be, for instance, any peaceful protest against it, I think we would be entering into uncharted territory,” he said .
Wale said that if protests turned violent, Solomon Islands could see Chinese forces brought in to deal with the situation, rather than Australia or New Zealand, the traditional security partners for the country.
“There is just so much widespread opposition in the public against this… and that’s why [Sogavare] needs the Chinese to protect him.”
A leaked draft of the security deal outlined how Solomon Islands could call for China to send security personnel under broad conditions, including “to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response, or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon”.
Last month, in his first interview since signing the pact with China, Sogavare said that while Solomon Islands would look to Australia first when it comes to security issues, his government would call on China if there was a “gap” that Australia could not meet .
“If there is any gap, we will not allow our country to go down the drain. If there is a gap, we will call on support from China,” he told the Guardian.
Australia’s Pacific minister, Pat Conroy, who has been in Solomon Islands this week, has said Sogavare has offered assurances that any changes to the constitution to extend his time in office would be a one-time move.
“We welcome the assurance from the prime minister and language of the bill that ensures if this is passed, it will be a one-off and its schedule for elections returns to the normal four-year cycle,” Conroy told ABC radio on Wednesday.
The draft legislation, which was submitted to parliament on Monday, is expected to be voted on next month, after an inquiry by a bills committee.
A change to the constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the parliament. Wale says the government has the numbers.
“There is a lot of anger out in the public,” the opposition leader said. “It’s hard to say how people are going to respond. You know, we’ve had enough of violence. But, when the public responds and the police then respond … usually it ends up in violence. We’re heading into more troubled waters.”
Sogavare was contacted for comment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism