HONIARA: Solomon Islands’ pro-Beijing prime minister on Thursday (Sep 8) won parliament’s backing to delay elections until 2024 at the earliest, but the opposition accused him of undermining democracy in the Pacific nation.
Veteran leader Manasseh Sogavare saw his controversial Constitution Amendment Bill approved by two-thirds of lawmakers, handing him at least an extra seven months in power.
Elections had been scheduled for May 2023, but Sogavare claimed his government does not have the capacity to hold the vote and host the Pacific Games in the same calendar year.
His move has sparked allegations of democratic backsliding in a country that is rapidly building ties with China’s authoritarian government.
As parliament debated the Bill Thursday, opposition leader Matthew Wale accused Sogavare’s government of turning its “democratic majority into a tyranny of numbers that hijacks parliamentary process”.
Wale described the bill as a “scheme” by Sogavare to remain in power “at the cost of the voters”.
“The people of Solomon Islands must – and will – remember this sad day when the government abused parliament for no worthy reason, but a power grab by the prime minister,” he added.
Police were deployed to the streets of the capital Honiara ahead of the vote – with many fearing a repeat of recent politically-fuelled rioting.
In a statement, Solomon Islands police called for calm, having beefed up the numbers of officers on the streets “to ensure law and order is maintained and to swiftly manage any public order issue”.
Sogavare signed a secretive security pact with Beijing in April that Western powers fear could lead to the Pacific nation providing China with a military foothold in a strategically important part of the world.
Earlier this week, Sogavare branded an offer from Australia to fund the next election “inappropriate”.
“I’m extremely disappointed and concerned about the timing and manner of the offer,” he added Thursday, but did not rule out accepting Canberra’s money for the poll in 2024.
Sogavare’s detractors see his altering of the constitution as another undemocratic move by a leader who has become increasingly authoritarian since his latest stint in power began in 2019.
China is financing a national stadium complex reportedly worth US$53 million to host the Pacific Games, scheduled for November 2023.
Sogavare heatedly rejected the opposition’s claims that delaying the poll was a thinly veiled attempt to hold on to power.
He argued that if his goal in amending the constitution was solely to remain in office, “we can just amend the constitution to ensure that we stay in power for another two years”.