Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has offered assurances that any constitutional amendment to extend his term would be a one-off step, Australia’s Pacific minister said.
Sogavare has decided to amend the constitution to extend his term in office beyond the Pacific Games in November 2023.
Opposition figures in the Solomon Islands have labeled the move a power grab and say elections can still take place alongside preparations for the games.
Australian Pacific Minister Pat Conroy, who recently visited the Solomon Islands for the anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a major turning point in World War II, said Sogavare assured him that passing the bill would be a one-off. move and the election cycle would return to normal after the games.
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s assurances and the language of the bill that if passed it will be a one-off and the election schedule will return to its normal four-year cycle,” Conroy told ABC radio on Wednesday.
“We believe that regular election cycles are an important aspect of the democratic norms and values we share across the region.
“Ultimately, this is a question for the democratically elected members of the parliament of the Solomon Islands and the people of the Solomon Islands and we are going to respect the internal processes of the neighboring countries.”
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Commerce said Australia is working with the Solomon Islands Electoral Office to “support electoral reform and governance, voter awareness and women’s participation in the political process” and that although they have not received a request for additional elections, support, “if requested, we would consider such a request”.
The minister’s comments come as Australia continues to use its diplomacy in the Pacific to repel any Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands after strengthening ties between Beijing and Honiara.
Speaking to the Guardian in July in his first media interview since signing the controversial security agreement with China earlier in 2022, Sogavare said there would never be a Chinese military base in his country.
Sogavare said such a development would make the Solomon Islands an “enemy” and make “our country and our people targets for possible military attacks”.
He has said that Australia remained the “choice security partner” for the Solomon Islands, but that his government would call on China for security personnel if there were a “gap” that Australia could not fill.
“If there is a gap, we will not allow our country to fall into the pit. If there is a gap, we will call on support from China. But we have made it very clear to the Australians, and often when we have this conversation with them, that they are a partner of choice… when it comes to security issues in the region, we will call on them first.”
Since the signing of the security pact with China, opposition figures from the Solomon Islands have warned that it could be used by the government to quell dissent and stay in power for years to come.
A leaked draft of the deal outlined how the Solomon Islands could call on China to send security personnel on terms including “to help maintain social order, protect people’s lives and property, provide humanitarian aid.” , conducting disaster relief or providing assistance on other agreed tasks”.
Celsus Irokwato Taliflu, a key adviser to the Suidani, the prime minister of the most populous province of the Solomon Islands, told The Guardian in April that such a wide range of reasons led to fears of the erosion of democracy.
“My biggest fear is that [Chinese military or police personnel] lay [Sogavare] in power for a long time,” he said. “People say we are a democratic country, of course we are. But if you have a power greater than anyone else in the Solomons, it will be easy for him to use that power to support him and his ministers or those in government to make sure they come back to the next election.”