Solomon Islands says Australian election offer is 'interference'

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

SYDNEY, Sept 6 (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands government has accused Australia of "interference", after an offer to fund its next election was made as parliament considered a bill to change the constitution to delay the vote.

The Solomon Islands relationship with Australia has been strained since it struck a security pact with China in April, raising concern among United States allies about increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific islands region.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's government faced mounting tensions among islanders after introducing to parliament on Tuesday proposed changes to the constitution that would delay a dissolution of parliament, currently due by May 2023. Parliament could vote on the legislation as early as Thursday.

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

Australia's foreign affairs minister Penny Wong said on Tuesday Australia had offered to finance the next election in the Solomon Islands, after Sogavare said the Pacific island nation couldn't afford to fund the Pacific Games and an election in the same year.

Sogavare wants to put off the vote until March 2024, and the proposed legislation would allow a delay in the four-year election cycle.

The bid to delay the election has been criticised by Solomon Islands opposition parties, which say business and community groups are unhappy about it.

Former deputy prime minister, John Maneniaru, chairman of the Solomon Islands bills and legislation committee, told parliament its process had been "hijacked" because community submissions had not been sought, and it was a "sad moment for democracy".

The Solomon Islands government said in a statement it appreciated the offer from Australia but the timing was "inappropriate", and should not have been announced in the media on the same day the legislation was read in parliament.

"This is an assault on our parliamentary democracy and is a direct interference by a foreign government into our domestic affairs," the statement said.

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

"It reflects our long standing and historical commitment to supporting democracy and democratic processes in the Solomon Islands," she said.

Australia supported the last election, in 2019, and already provides funding of $5.7 million to the Solomon Islands Electoral Office for reform programmes.

Australia's department of foreign affairs and trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement by the Solomon Islands, but earlier said Australia's offer was to assist Solomon Islands deliver its next general election, without specifying a timeframe.

Australian police are in Honiara under an international assistance force working with local counterparts, however Sogavare's government can also call in 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 financing a $100 million Huawei telecommunications network. read more

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

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