Solomon Islands votes to delay election despite opposition

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York
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 8 (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands parliament passed a bill on Thursday to delay the next general election, over the objections of opposition party members who have accused Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of a power grab.

Sogavare said he was rushing the legislation through because of the risk of protests. The bill, which passed with 37 votes in favour to 10 against, changes the constitution to allow the election to be delayed until 2024 from 2023. Two lawmakers were absent.

The chamber of commerce in the Pacific archipelago had called for public calm to avoid a repeat of November riots in which shops in the capital Honiara's Chinatown were burnt down.

Sogavare argued in parliament that the Solomon Islands cannot successfully host both the Pacific Games and an election next year because of the logistical requirements.

"We cannot afford to present a country that is politically unstable," he said, adding an election after May 2023 would be too close to the November games.

Sogavare previously argued that the Solomon Islands could not afford to hold the Pacific Games, a regional athletics meeting for which China is building seven venues and stadiums, and a general election in the same year.

Australia on Tuesday offered to fund the election, prompting a rebuke from Sogavare, who said the timing of the offer was "foreign interference". read more

He told parliament on Thursday he would nonetheless "look forward" to Australia's funding offer after parliament passed the bill.

Opposition members have questioned Sogavare's justification for postponing the election, saying the government had lost focus on the people's right to universal suffrage.

"There was never any need to choose between holding the elections and hosting the Pacific Games," opposition leader Matthew Wale said. "There is no worthy reason but a power grab by the prime minister."

Former Prime Minister Rick Hou said delaying the election was "morally wrong".

Controversy over the delay comes amid concern among opposition parties about Sogavare's relationship with China, which provides a fund through which he distributed 20.9 million Solomon Island dollars ($2.5 million) to 39 of the 50 members of parliament in 2021. read more

Sogavare's government struck a security pact with China in April that allows Chinese police to restore social order and protect Chinese infrastructure projects.

The November anti-government riots were quelled by Australian police working with Solomon Island forces under a long-standing security arrangements.

Another opposition member opposing the delay, Alfred Efona, said the Pacific Games should not be the reason "for us to adopt any communist ideas, behaviours and approaches hostile to the way we treat our democratic practices including the voice of the people".

While the election is delayed, the Solomon Islands will have a caretaker government for four months in 2024, cabinet members told parliament.

Sogavare denied any democratic principles have been breached by changing the constitution, and criticised media coverage.

Fisheries Minister Nester Giro, supporting the election delay, said there were "no foreign powers influencing me".

($1 = 8.3264 Solomon Islands dollars)

Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel and William Mallard

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