Solomon Islands to Decide Whether to Stick with Manasseh Sogavare

The country heads to the polls on Wednesday in what experts are calling the most important election in its history. On one side there’s opposition candidates pledging to realign Solomon Islands away from China. With them are Western democracies such Australia, which are privately anxious about Mr. Sogavare securing another term.   In the middle there are the people of Solomon Islands, who continue to face entrenched poverty, mass youth unemployment and a health system on its knees. And then there’s Mr. Sogavare. He wants to add to his legacy, continue his China-focused “look north” policy and become the first Solomon Islands prime minister to serve a full term and be re-elected. Solomon Islands is a Westminster-style democracy, yet critics have labelled Mr. Sogavare a “budding dictator” and “China’s puppet”. The country’s Opposition Leader Matthew Wale says he’s been a “very deceptive prime minister”. Wale says the time for change has come. “It’s been government by deception,” he says. “The time has come to stop it — and only the people can.”

Mr. Sogavare’s latest tenure has been shrouded in moves to stifle media freedom, and at one point his government tried to ban Facebook. Wednesday’s elections were pushed back by almost a year, with the prime minister saying the country couldn’t afford to host the Pacific Games and an election at the same time. The ABC has been attempting to interview Mr. Sogavare for the past five years. He has denied all requests. For long-time Solomon Islands watcher Jon Fraenkel, there is no doubt Mr. Sogavare has “authoritarian proclivities”. “He is ruthlessly intent on keeping power,” he says. “And he’s been quite effective at it. After all, he’s only the second Solomon Islands prime minister to serve a full term.” Yet Dr Fraenkel, a professor in comparative politics at the Victoria University in Wellington, says the “dictator” tag is overblown. “‘I’ve seen some absurd Australian commentary making all sorts of preposterous claims suggesting the country is about to become some kind of Stalinist dictatorship,” he says. “These are laughable and ridiculous claims by people who have no idea about context.”

Rather, he calls Mr. Sogavare a “master of mayhem”.   “I don’t want to suggest he deliberately orchestrates turmoil,” he says. “But in each of his four terms in office, there’s either been a crisis just beforehand, or a crisis triggered by his accession to the prime ministership.” Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has defended the “Chinese style” of governing while questioning the values of democracy. McKell Institute chief executive Ed Cavanough agrees. He spent the past five years researching Mr Sogavare and the reasons behind the country’s switch to China. He says the dictator narrative is “simplistic”. “I don’t think it’s fair enough to just say, ‘Yep, he’s an autocrat,’ because he wants to remain in power. I mean, a lot of leaders around the world want to do the exact same thing.” Instead, Mr. Cavanough labels Mr. Sogavare a “nationalist”.   “There was certainly a narrative that in embracing China, Sogavare got a lot of personal dividends from that,” he says. “But at his heart he’s nationalist, and he’s sceptical of outside forces, basically telling the country what to do.”

The main road in Solomon Islands capital Honiara is in a constant state of disrepair. According to Dr Fraenkel, Mr. Sogavare is promoting a “hope and expectation” that the link with China will secure greater development possibilities.  “But I’m not sure whether he’s right,” he says. “There seems to be a kind of addiction to overseas aid as the solution to all the development problems of the country, whereas really, more likely the longer term solutions are going to come from within.” A major rival to Mr. Sogavare, Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of the United Party, rejects that notion. Peter Kenilorea Jr sees a different future for Solomon Islands. The son of the country’s first prime minister says the decisions Mr. Sogavare has made are “not in the best interest of the nation”. “I always say, Solomon Islands development will always fall on the shoulders of Solomon Islanders,” he says. “And it’s not Taiwan, it’s not China that will develop Solomon Islands. It’s not the US. It’s not Australia. It’s us ourselves.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

Print This Post Print This Post

Comments are closed