All week at the betel nut stalls across Honiara, people have been talking about one thing: the government’s decision to defer national elections.
On Monday, the Solomon Islands government presented a bill to parliament saying it was seeking a constitutional amendment to defer the dissolution of parliament from May 2023 until the end of December.
The reason they cited was that the country was not able to host both an election and the Pacific Games in the same year.
The decision has raised eyebrows.
James Ihomana, a construction supervisor, says extending the term of parliament does not sit well with him.
“As Solomon Islanders we already know that elections are held every four years, it’s the law, and to say that 2023 Pacific Games is the reason to delay the national general elections is not a good excuse.”
James Ihomana, a construction supervisor, says delaying elections to host a sporting event is ‘not a good excuse’. Photograph: Georgina Maka’a/The Guardian
The prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has offered assurances that any changes to the constitution to extend his time in office would be a one-off move and after that elections would return to the normal four-year cycle.
But Fred Foumai, an elder in Honiara, is sceptical and says it will be interesting to see if the government keeps to its word and holds the deferred election in early 2024, as the bill presented to parliament this week would require.
“I wonder if they are genuinely deferring the elections because of the Pacific Games, or is there any strings attached that we need to know about,” he says.
Matthew Wale, the opposition leader, labelled the decision a “power grab” by Sogavare that he believed was connected to Sogavare’s signing of a controversial security deal with China earlier this year.
Wale told the Guardian he feared the delayed election could provoke unrest and lead to a harsh crackdown by the government, who might then call on Chinese security personnel to assist.
“There is just so much widespread opposition in the public against this … and that’s why [Sogavare] needs the Chinese to protect him,” he said.
Grace Waowao, a student at Solomon Islands National University. Photograph: Georgina Maka’a/The Guardian
Grace Waowao had questions about the government’s motivations and particularly wondered why it couldn’t call on international partners to assist with running the election.
The Australian government has said it would consider providing funding for additional electoral support if such a request came from the Solomon Islands government.
“I don’t see why there should be any deferral of the national elections,” says Waowao. “If the country gets a lot of aid assistance from different diplomatic partners, they should prioritise these two events instead of making decisions before informing the nation about their plans.”
The concern that the government had made such a big decision without consulting the people was shared by several people.
Now that the bill has been presented to parliament, the Bills and Legislation Committee (BLC) will carry out an inquiry before it is voted on – which is likely next month – and visit some provincial capitals to gauge reaction to the proposed delay.
Redley Bose a local entrepreneur, says that any decision like this should be made very carefully, given the precedent it could set.
“If we are a democratic country then what the government is trying to do is undemocratic, we need a transparent government for the people and by the people and not a government that makes decisions without consulting its people,” he says.
However, not everyone was opposed. Jared Nangu, a senior high school student, says that if hosting two big events in 2023 was beyond the capacity of the government, then deferring the election seemed reasonable, given the opportunity presented by hosting the Pacific Games.
“I understand that under the constitution of Solomon Islands, a parliament term is fixed at four years but in my opinion, I feel that the leaders in the government probably know what they are doing hence the reason they want to delay the elections,” he says.