Solomon Islands says Australian election bid ‘interference’

Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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SYDNEY, September 6 (Reuters) – The Solomon Islands government has accused Australia of “interference”, after a bid to fund its upcoming election was made as parliament considered a bill to amend the constitution to delay the vote.

Relations between the Solomon Islands and Australia have been strained since they reached a security pact with China in April, raising concerns among US allies over China’s growing influence in the region. of the Pacific Islands.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government has faced growing tensions among islanders after tabling proposed changes to the constitution in parliament on Tuesday that would delay the dissolution of parliament, currently scheduled for May 2023. Parliament could vote on the legislation as of Thursday.

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Australia warned in a travel warning of the risk of civil unrest on the islands, which have a population of around 700,000 and saw anti-government riots in November.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on Tuesday Australia had offered to fund the Solomon Islands’ upcoming elections, after Sogavare said the Pacific island nation could not afford to fund the Solomon Islands Games. Pacific and an election the same year.

Sogavare wants to postpone the vote to March 2024, and the proposed legislation would delay the election cycle by four years.

The attempt to delay the election has been criticized by Solomon Islands’ opposition parties, who say businesses and community groups are unhappy with it.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Maneniaru, chair of Solomon Islands’ bills and legislation committee, told parliament his process had been ‘hijacked’ because community submissions had not been solicited and that it was a “sad moment for democracy”.

The Solomon Islands government said in a statement it appreciated Australia’s offer but the timing was “inappropriate” and should not have been announced in the media on the same day the legislation was read to the court. parliament.

“This is an attack on our parliamentary democracy and direct interference by a foreign government in our internal affairs,” the statement said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Wong told ABC Radio that Australia recently backed Papua New Guinea to hold a general election and made a similar offer to the Solomon Islands.

“This reflects our long-standing and historic commitment to supporting democracy and democratic processes in the Solomon Islands,” she said.

Australia supported the last election, in 2019, and is already providing $5.7 million in funding to the Solomon Islands Electoral Board for reform programs.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Solomon Islands statement, but said earlier Australia’s offer was to help the Solomon Islands organize their next general elections, without specifying a deadline.

Australian police are in Honiara as part of an international assistance force working with their local counterparts, but the Sogavare government can also call on Chinese police to quell riots under the new security pact.

China is funding the construction of seven venues for Honiara to host the Pacific Games in 2023, and funding a $100 million Huawei telecommunications network. Read more

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Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Kim Coghill, Robert Birsel and Simon Cameron-Moore

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Lynn A. Saleh