April 14, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

PRC shadow looms as the Solomons head for election

PRC and its proxies in Solomons have been preparing for these elections for a long time. A lot of money, effort and intelligence have gone into ensuring an outcome that won’t compromise Beijing’s plans.
April 14, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

PRC shadow looms as the Solomons head for election

PRC and its proxies in Solomons have been preparing for these elections for a long time. A lot of money, effort and intelligence have gone into ensuring an outcome that won’t compromise Beijing’s plans.

On April 17th the Solomon Islands, a country of around 700,000 people in the South Western Pacific, will hold elections. Until recently, elections in the Pacific Islands generally passed unnoticed in world capitals. Not anymore. That lack of attention had resulted in too many “surprises”.

The last Solomons election, in 2019, resulted in the new Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, ditching the country’s longstanding relationship with Taiwan and turning to China. While there had been rumours circulating in Washington and elsewhere such a “switch” was a possibility, when Sogavare actually did it, there was a minor panic. Especially when another Pacific Islands country, Kiribati, did the same thing shortly afterwards.

Of course, there was a lot less surprise in Solomon Islands. One Solomon Islander analyst told The Sunday Guardian that, before the “switch”, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had been grooming leadership of Guadalcanal province for years, and that became a critical conduit into the Sogavare government. The analyst watched it develop, and tried to warn anyone who would listen. Few did.

It was one of many examples in which Solomon Islanders unsurprisingly provided the best analysis and understanding of their own country. Let’s look at a few other examples, then let’s find out what some of those with a proven track record of being right are saying about the upcoming election (though, given the tense situation on the ground, some of the best Solomon Islander strategists prefer to stay anonymous).


In August 2021, Sogavare’s government used a PRC slush fund to give payouts to 39 out of the 50 Members of Parliament. All 39 were supporters, to one degree or another, of the Prime Minister. The eleven left out were, by and large, less supportive.

At the time, a Solomon Islander told The Sunday Guardian that 39 was, with a small buffer, the number required to change the Constitution. They added that it was likely Sogavare wanted to move the next election from 2023 to 2024 in order to give himself more time to put his pieces in place—a delay that would require a constitutional change.

In a 23 April 2022 interview, respected Solomons political leader Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr. told The Sunday Guardian there were more indications Sogavare wanted to put off elections: “I can see from the [government] budget that it’s clear the government is not taking the election seriously, because they haven’t put adequate budget aside for the preparations for next year’s elections. For me, that is the biggest indicator. I was looking out for those numbers. And I don’t see them.”

In August 2022, Sogavare introduced the bill—that ultimately passed—postponing elections. There had been over a year’s notice from Solomon Islanders that it was coming, but for some, it was a “surprise”. And there was very little pushback from Canberra or Wellington.


Similarly, in a 26 October 2021 interview with The Sunday Guardian, Kenilorea warned that public anger with Sogavare was getting dangerous and that others seemed not to be noticing: “In terms of our big neighbours, I would have thought they would have been more on to it than they are. They don’t seem to be taking it seriously enough. I don’t think they are reading the signals, or else they are acting as if it isn’t happening.

“For me, personally, it is quite frustrating. I keep repeating myself to certain high commissioners but I’m told ‘we don’t want to upset the apple cart,’ as it were. Also that they want to work with the government of the day… Our neighbours are frustratingly not seeing it as we are. I don’t know if it’s reflective of their respective capitals.

“Things don’t build up very clearly in the Solomon Islands—things explode suddenly. You need to be more nuanced to read these things. They have been with us for a while now, but they are still not picking up clues about what is happening on the ground.”

Less than a month later, riots broke out in the capital, Honiara. Chinatown was targeted.

By March 2022, a draft of a security deal between China and Sogavare’s government was leaked, allowing for the deployment of PLA troops to defend Chinese citizens and businesses, and help put down civil unrest. Solomon Islanders had been warning since 2019 about a building Chinese security presence.


And so now here we are. Sogavare got his way and bought himself time before the elections. The PRC had time to set up security arrangements. The United States is finding it harder to operate in the region. Leaders who were standing in the way of PRC expansion efforts, like the former Premier of Malaita Province Daniel Suidani, were pushed out of office. And PRC businesses and influence operations had longer to take root.

In the words of one leader who saw the change from the inside, Celsus Talifilu: “Our forests and people have been raped and pillaged by a logging monster that lives in China. While the legs and wings of the dragon are in Malaysia and the Philippines we know where its home cave is. We’ve watched it bribe and corrupt countless leaders, and we know it will never stop. The corrupt political elite in the Solomon Islands central government have become kleptocrats.”

The point of all of this is that the PRC and its proxies in Solomons have been preparing for these elections for a long time. A lot of money, effort and intelligence have gone into ensuring an outcome that won’t compromise Beijing’s plans. It may be backing Sogavare, but it is backing many others as well, including at the local levels, at the universities, in schools, in health care. Not only has the PRC gamed this, it’s done this before, in other countries, over decades. Just ask Zimbabwe.

What does that mean? Let’s ask the experts—the Solomon Islanders.


First, what’s happening on the ground?

There is a ramping up of “aid” delivery by China and the signing of agreements with “caretaker” leaders during the election period—this is unusual and gives the appearance of vote buying and position consolidation.

There is a proliferation of disinformation along the lines of articles titled: “U.S. Ramps up Regime Change Efforts in Solomon Islands in Advance of Upcoming Election”, laying the ground work to blame others if violence breaks out.

There has been more than usual training in several districts by PRC “police” (aka internal security services) in riot control techniques.

Second, what happens on voting day?

The expectation is that voting day itself will be calm. But it’s what comes next that some Solomon Islanders are worried about.

Provincial and national elections are being held on the same day. Once people vote in their districts, the sealed boxes with the votes are transported to the capital for counting. This is the first time both elections are happening at the same time. There are outside election observers, but Solomons is very rural and it is difficult to cover everywhere.

One concern is that the police, leadership in particular, have been politicized. This will be a major test of the impartiality of key components of the governance structure.

Another concern is that provincial election votes could be counted before the national election votes. In the words of one Solomon Islander: “[If this happens] this is a curious decision given that provincial elections will only have a governance outcome AFTER several weeks. National results will need to be taken, parliament will need to meet and vote for a PM, a cabinet will need to determined, a minister of provincial government appointed and sworn in, ALL before the provincial results can translate into provincial assemblies. Why count these first when the effect will depend on the national results anyway?”

One reason being floated is that with so many voting boxes in a central location waiting to be counted, there could be extra time for manipulation.

Another concern is that there could be extensive delays in counting, combined with a disinformation campaign to spur unrest and justify a crackdown.

That may not even be required.

Another Solomon Islander told The Sunday Guardian: “The average Solomon Islander is fed up with Sogavare’s government. He’s been PM four times. They are fed up with the state of health care, rural infrastructure, education. If they hear the majority of his party retains their seats, it is going to cause disappointments—I hope we don’t go through another riot in the city. But one thing is sure, whatever happens, China is not going to just walk away.”

And, by now, that should not be a surprise to anyone.

Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and columnist with The Sunday Guardian.


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