Solomon Islands Heads To The Polls: An End To Devil’s Night?

In April, the Solomon Islands held its first general election since the withdrawal of the Australia-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an event which can be considered a tentative step forward for democracy in the country.

While Solomon Islanders went to the polls on 3 April, it was not until three weeks later, on 24 April, that a governing coalition was formed with Manasseh Sogavare appointed as prime minister by legislators for the fourth time in his political career.

Shortly after his appointment, Sogavare declared: “This is the day the nation has been looking forward to…God has delivered this outcome,” continuing, “The Government will go straight into allocating our various portfolios and get straight into the business of running the affairs of the state.”

Increased attention surrounded the conduct of this election as it provided the first acid test of the country’s progress towards stability, functionality, and democracy made during the 14-year RAMSI operation, which had cost AUD$2.6bn. Bribery, pre-filled ballot papers, and coercion had been all too familiar in past general elections, with the 24 hours prior to election day being termed Devil’s Night.

Last month, however, the Solomon Islands showed that it could hold a relatively free and clean election in the absence of international peacekeepers. Only a small Australian and New Zealand force was present to provide logistical support, such as delivery of ballot boxes by helicopter to more remote areas in the country.

The RAMSI operation was launched in response to an ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands at the turn of the century between the Malaitans and the people of Guadalcanal, which left the country dysfunctional and unstable, killing hundreds and displacing thousands more. Indeed, the diversity of the Solomon Islands (with six culturally different main islands, 900 other islands, and 70 languages spoken) has always posed a threat to unity and nationalism since the region gained independence from Britain in 1978.

RAMSI forces were present from 2003 until 2017 to help re-introduce stability and functionality and return the country to a democratic government. In a post-9/11 world, Australia was more willing to be the Pacific hegemon to avoid terrorism harbouring near its borders and threatening national security. The most recent general election suggests that RAMSI forces have gone some way to achieving those objectives, with a ban on campaigning and the sale of liquor in the 24 hours preceding the election, promoting a relatively clean and free election.

The reaction to the election result, however, was a timely reminder that stability remains a fragile concept in the Solomon Islands. News of Prime Minister Sogavare’s inauguration was greeted with a chorus of violent protests in the country’s capital, Honiara, in which nine police officers were injured and 50 arrests were made. The legitimacy of Sogavare’s election by legislators has also been called into question, with the prime minister’s main opponent, Matthew Wale, leading court proceedings to allege Sogavare registered his Ownership, Unity and Responsibility Party too late to be permitted to form a coalition.

Wale and 15 of his supporters boycotted the parliamentary election of Sogavare, which does not bode well for future stability in a highly fictionalized legislature of only 50 members. Indeed, it is rare for a Solomon Islands prime minister to serve a full term. More worryingly perhaps, Sogavare was openly critical of RAMSI for undermining the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty and may show similar reluctance to peacekeeping efforts should they be needed in the future. For now, though, the Solomon Islands can reflect upon the progress made under RAMSI and upon the most democratic and clean election it has conducted in over two decades.