The Solomon Islands parliament has passed a bill to delay the next general election, despite the objections of opposition party members who had accused Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of a “power grab”.
The bill, which passed on Thursday with 37 votes in favour to 10 against, changes the constitution to allow the next general election to be delayed until 2024 from 2023. Two politicians were absent.
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Sogavare argued that the Solomons could not successfully host both the Pacific Games and an election in 2023 because of logistical requirements.
He previously argued that it would be too costly to hold the regional athletics meeting – for which China is building seven venues and stadiums – and a general election in the same year.
“We cannot afford to present a country that is politically unstable,” he said on Thursday, adding an election after May 2023 would be too close to the November sporting games.
Sogavare said he was rushing the legislation through parliament because of the risk of protests.
The chamber of commerce in the Pacific archipelago had called for public calm to avoid a repeat of November riots in which shops in capital Honiara’s Chinatown were burned down by protesters angry with Sogavare’s government.
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 he criticised news media for their coverage of the issue.
Former Prime Minister Rick Hou said delaying the election was “morally wrong”, and opposition members have questioned Sogavare’s justification for seeking to postpone the vote.
Opposition leader Matthew Wale said there was “never any need to choose between holding the elections and hosting the Pacific Games”.
Voters he consulted had rejected the proposed delay, said Wale, who described the rescheduling of the election as “a power grab by the prime minister”.
“I object to anything that undermines the mandate, the role, and the place of the people in decision-making affecting, especially, a matter as important as the life of parliament itself,” Wale told Al Jazeera.
“What is happening now that concerns me is that Prime Minister Sogavare is so pro-China and clearly anti-US and its allies, that concerns me a great deal. It’s not good for the future of this country,” Wale said.
The Solomon Islands has been at the centre of an intensifying geopolitical tug of war, with Australia, New Zealand and the United States fearing increased influence from China after violent riots against Sogavare’s leadership broke out last year.
The violence was partly a result of frustrations with Sogavare’s government and chronic unemployment.
Australia on Tuesday offered to fund the Solomon Islands’ next election to allow it to proceed on time, an offer that prompted a rebuke from Sogavare who said the timing of Canberra’s proposal amounted to “foreign interference”.
He told parliament on Thursday he would nonetheless accept Australia’s funding offer after parliament passed the bill to delay the election.
Controversy over the planned delay comes amid concern among opposition parties regarding Sogavare’s relationship with China as the country went as far as suspending visits by the US Navy.
Sogavare’s government struck a security pact with China in April that allows Chinese police to restore social order and protect Chinese infrastructure projects in the territory.
Cynthia Watson, an Asia Pacific analyst, told Al Jazeera that the prime minister appears to be attempting to “string out his reign” and is searching for reasons as to why he would be better at running the country than the political opposition.
Sogavare was also attempting to redraw the Solomon Islands’ relations with traditional allies, Watson said.
Such a move may be “extraordinarily short-sighted on the part of the prime minister in putting all of his eggs in the China basket”, Watson said, to the detriment of traditional allies such as Australia, and the US to a degree.
Another opposition member opposed to delaying the election, 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”.
Sogavare has denied any democratic principles have been breached by changing the constitution to delay the vote.
The anti-government riots in November 2021 were quelled by Australian police working with Solomon Island forces under longstanding security arrangements.