Asia

Solomon Islands PM insists extending his term is ‘one-off’, says Australian minister


The Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has offered assurances any changes to the constitution to extend his time in office would be a one-time move, Australia’s Pacific minister says.

Sogavare has moved to change the constitution to extend his term in government until after the Pacific Games in November 2023.

Opposition figures in Solomon Islands have branded the move a power grab, saying elections would still be able to take place alongside preparations for the games.

Australia’s Pacific minister, Pat Conroy, who has recently been in Solomon Islands for the anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a key turning point in the second world war, said he was assured by Sogavare the passing of the bill would be a one-off move and the election cycle would return to normal after the games.

“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.

“We believe that having regular election cycles is a key aspect of democratic norms and values which we share across the region.

“Ultimately, this is a question for the democratically elected members of the Solomon Islands parliament and people of the Solomon Islands and we are going to respect the internal processes of neighbouring countries.”

The minister’s comments come as Australia continues to leverage its diplomacy in the Pacific to ward off any Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands following the strengthening of ties between Beijing and Honiara.

Speaking to the Guardian in July in his first media interview since signing the controversial security deal 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 Solomon Islands an “enemy” and “put our country and our people as targets for potential military strikes”.

He has said Australia remained the “security partner of choice” for Solomon Islands, but that his government would call on China for security personnel 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. But we’ve made it very clear to the Australians, and many times 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, Solomon Islands opposition figures have warned that it could be used by the government to quash dissent and hold on to power for years to come.

A leaked draft of the 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”.

Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, a key adviser to the Suidani, the premier of the most populous province in Solomon Islands, told the Guardian in April that such a wide range of reasons led to fears about the erosion of democracy.

“My main fear is [Chinese military or police personnel] put [Sogavare] in power for a long time,” he said. “People say we are a democratic country, of course it is. But when you have a force bigger than anyone else in the Solomons, it will be easy for him to use that force to support him and his ministers or those who are in government to ensure they come back at the next elections.”



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