The Solomon Islands Heads to the Polls: Sogavare, Democracy, and Great Power Competition

There is no shortage of significant elections taking place in 2024, including in India, Indonesia, the United States, and even Russia—although Russian elections are hardly democratic. Yet another, much smaller, election continues to generate news. When Solomon Islanders go to the polls on April 17, their votes will decide much more than just which member of parliament (MP) will represent their domestic concerns—they will also shape which direction the Solomon Islands throws its weight on the larger global competition playing field. This Critical Questions discusses why the election in this Pacific nation is so significant and what to look for in the aftermath of April 17.

Q1: What’s at stake when Solomon Islanders head to the polls on April 17?

A1: Strategically located in the heart of the Pacific, the Solomon Islands is the third-largest Pacific Island nation with a population of over 700,000. It is a 50-seat parliamentary democracy whose political parties are based less on ideological differences than on factional coalitions. No prime minster has sat in the seat for consecutive terms—including current prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has served four separate terms over the past two and a half decades. Although the Solomon Islands normally holds elections every four years, in 2022 Prime Minister Sogavare successfully maneuvered a constitutional amendment to delay the 2023 election until 2024, claiming that the Solomon Islands could not afford to run both the 2023 Pacific Games and an election in the same year. Opposition leaders labeled this move a power grab—further demonstration of democratic backsliding under the current prime minister. April 17 will be a test both for Sogavare’s ability to maintain power and for democracy in the Solomon Islands.

Q2: Why does the Solomon Islands, and its election, matter to U.S. policymakers?

A2: The Solomon Islands is a key member of the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s largest intergovernmental organization, which stresses Pacific regionalism and consensus-based decisionmaking. Yet in recent years the Solomon Islands has begun to look to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to meet its economic and security needs in a way that has concerned its neighbors and negatively influenced its democratic institutions.

When the Solomon Islands signed a secret security agreement with China in the spring of 2022, the news was met with alarm from the United States and likeminded partners. While Chinese influence and interest in the Pacific had been growing for years, this agreement was a turning point—a clear manifestation of China’s attempts to establish a foothold in the Pacific, a region that proved critical during World War II—with Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands being the site of one of the most pivotal Pacific battles of the war. According to the leaked draft of the agreement (the final version has never been officially released), the pact vaguely allows China to deploy armed police and Chinese armed forces to the Solomon Islands to “assist in maintaining social order,” a concerning statement that alludes to undermining democratic processes in the name of social stability. There is also fear that this agreement could be a pretext for establishing a permanent presence in the country and, eventually, a base.

China’s reasons for establishing this security agreement are obvious from a geopolitical perspective, but those of the Solomon Islands government less so. Sogavare has emphasized that the purpose of the pact, which he refers to as a “treaty,” is for internal security, but for many that translates to regime security to ensure that he himself remains in power. Indeed, the agreement was finalized just months after mass protests and rioting erupted following a vote of no confidence during which Sogavare allegedly distributed Chinese-funded bribes in order to stay in power.

The Solomon Islands government insists that it will continue to rely on traditional security partners such as Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga—yet while Australia sent in security forces during the November 2021 protests and rioting, Sogavare still looked outside the Pacific to China for additional assistance. With the finalizing of the PRC security agreement, the Solomon Islands has invited in a player that aims to reshape the regional security architecture and could degrade a coherent and cohesive Pacific Islands Forum, causing concern among Pacific neighbors.

Q3: How has the relationship between the Solomon Islands and China developed?

A3: While the security agreement was a surprise for many, the evolution of the relationship between the Solomon Islands and China (and that of Sogavare and China) had been in motion for some time. After securing prime minister for a second time in 2006, Sogavare took a strong position against the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which had been in place since 2003 as a result of massive civil unrest from 1998 to 2003; after Australian police raided his office, Sogavare condemned the Australian “occupation.” Sogavare’s anti-RAMSI rhetoric softened somewhat after his 2014 election, but this is likely because RAMSI was already drawing down and the prime minister recognized that his stronger stance against Australia had been a factor leading to his being ousted from parliament in 2007.

Nevertheless, Sogavare made a clear tilt toward China when the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, causing simmering dissatisfaction that contributed to later widespread protests and rioting in 2021. Sogavare survived a subsequent 2021 vote of no confidence with significant Chinese backing—an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) report estimated that China provided over 3 million USD to Sogavare to distribute in bribes to fellow MPs in order secure their support in the vote. Then, in July 2023, the prime minister signed yet another secret pact with China, this time on policing and law enforcement. Throughout this period, there was a massive influx of Chinese businesses and interests in the Solomon Islands, which caused deterioration of due process and good governance.

Q4: Who are the major political players in this election?

A4: Although he has never previously won consecutive seats as prime minister, Sogavare is no neophyte in politics nor distributing patronage. He currently leads the Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) party and is likely placed to maintain a decent hold on a number of supporting MPs, assuming he continues to be financially backed by China.

As for the opposition, two main opposition parties—Democratic Alliance and the Solomon Islands Democratic Party—have formed the Coalition for Accountability and Reform and Empowerment (CARE). Several CARE members have criticized the security agreement with China, including CARE leader Matthew Wale, and one of the coalition parties, the United Party (UP), has stated that its policy would be to reestablish diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Another opposition party, UMI for Change (U4C), launched in late January with the ousted Malaita province leader Daniel Suidani as its leader. U4C stated in its manifesto that it would aim to promote the economy through business development and encouraging private sector investment. Additionally, Suidani stated that U4C would review the One China Principle, emphasizing the importance of transparency and consensus in building diplomatic relations.

Q5: What should observers watch for on and after the April 17 election?

A5: Although ballots will be cast on April 17, it could take weeks for newly elected MPs to converge on Honiara to form a new government—and that is when things will get interesting given the number of unknowns still at play.

If 2019 is any indication, different hotels in Honiara will act as de facto party headquarters for various factions, who will then haggle and deal amid shifting alliances to eventually form a government. Uncertainty over the outcome of this haggling is due to the opaque nature of tools of patronage that will be traded—including what Chinese money is where. While precedent suggests that Sogavare will likely use Chinese funding to build a coalition, it is uncertain what other candidates the PRC has been hedging its bets with. In other words, a non-Sogavare prime minister does not guarantee a change in posture toward China.

It is also unclear how solid the CARE coalition will remain once the deal-making begins and how strongly the coalition will be able to maintain its pro-Taiwan bent. Some members of the opposition have floated both reestablishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan and reassessing the security pact with China, which may not be as palatable to MPs looking to continue benefiting from a growing Solomon Islands–China relationship.

Lastly, in a country where protests and rioting have accompanied almost every election this century, the possibility of post-election violence is a very real possibility. Sogavare has proved a lightning rod for protests, with mass rioting occurring after he became prime minister in 2019, and again when he survived a no-confidence vote in 2021. In light of this potential, the Solomon Islands government requested security support from several partners, including Australia, which extended its Pacific Games deployment of security forces, and New Zealand, which sent a 200-person Joint Task Force aboard the HMNZS Canterbury. Another factor, of course, is the PRC security pact, which would allow Sogavare to call in Chinese security forces, should he deem it necessary to protect his interests.

The real test for the Solomon Islands, therefore, is not the people going to the polls on April 17, but the aftermath—what patronage the new government is formed with, who becomes prime minister, and how the government responds to potential protests. A change in prime minister does not guarantee a shift from the Solomon Islands’ lean toward China. However, given Sogavare’s recent praise of China’s style of governance, his reelection would most certainly further solidify China’s influence in the country.

Kathryn Paik is a senior fellow with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.