Riots erupted in Honiara on 24 April after Manasseh Sogavare was elected Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands for the fourth time. In protest, angry crowds hurling rocks descended on Chinatown and vandalized the Pacific Casino Hotel, as they had also done in the aftermath of the 2006 elections.
This time, rioters faced stiffer resistance from the new and well-equipped riot police, who used tear gas to disperse protestors and prevent a repeat of the 2006 burning down of Chinatown. Rioting continued through the nights of 24 and 25 April, mainly confined to the Burns Creek squatter settlement and areas eastwards to Henderson Airfield.
The troubles came in the wake of the first election since the departure of the 2003 to 2017 Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an Australian-led peacekeeping mission. It was generally a peaceful affair, but — as after previous elections — the major disturbances centred on the prime ministerial election.
Many anticipated unrest ahead of the 2019 prime ministerial vote, but the contest was poorly handled politically. The country’s capital Honiara is nowadays a tinderbox, with thousands of unemployed youths in squatter settlements easily provoked by political events. Honiara’s population has grown markedly since the pre-RAMSI tensions of 1998 to 2003.
Votes for the head of government in the Solomon Islands are held behind closed doors. The 50 members of parliament form loose factions around candidates for the top job. In the 2019 election these were the Democratic Coalition for Advancement — which selected Sogavare as its preferred leader — and the Grand Coalition Group (GCG), who wanted to see Matthew Wale become prime minister. Sogavare won by 34 votes to one after Wale’s group walked out of the parliamentary building in protest.
Riots in 2006 triggered the fall of Snyder Rini’s eight-day government, which was widely perceived as in thrall to Asian loggers. This set an unfortunate precedent. Rini’s downfall enabled Sogavare to become prime minister for a second time. On this 2019 occasion, it was Sogavare’s rival for the top-job, Matthew Wale, who complained about Asian loggers bankrolling the prime ministerial election process. As Solomon Islands academic Tarcisius Kabutaulaka rightly warned, those allegations risked fomenting discord. In fact, politicians associated with logging companies were on both sides of the contest for the 2019 prime ministership, including those who supported the GCG.
The rallying cry for ‘change’ was used to contest the legitimacy of Sogavare’s election, but it was the government led by Sogavare (2014 to 2017) and then by Rick Houenipwela with Sogavare as his deputy (2017 to 2019) that was able to push through long-awaited — but unfortunately watered-down — anti-corruption legislation. Preparedness to fight endemic corruption is often seen as a critical barometer of commitment to change within the Solomon Islands.
Matthew Wale also tried to use the courts to stop Sogavare becoming prime minister. Sogavare ran as an independent candidate, but straight after the election he rallied many of the other MPs who stood as independents behind his newly re-formed Ownership, Unity and Responsibility Party (OUR). Wale’s claim was that, under the 2014 Political Parties Act, this was illegal. After preliminary deliberations, the court sought to delay the 24 April prime ministerial election until giving a full decision on Friday, but the Governor General decided to go ahead with the vote. On Friday 26 April, the court then again unwisely delayed its decision.
This only fuelled doubts about the legitimacy of the elections. Delays in prime ministerial elections always threaten trouble in the combustible context of Honiara. Yet as the Registrar for Political Parties acknowledged, Sogavare’s efforts to register OUR pre-dated the election but the paperwork was delayed. Running as an independent did not stop Sogavare becoming prime minister after the 2014 election.
In an effort to halt side-switching by MPs and regulate elections, in 2014 the Solomon Islands Parliament hastily passed a Political Parties Integrity Act, but this was poorly drafted and rushed into law. The 2014 law also left relevant provisions of the 1978 constitution intact, despite inconsistencies. It was the 1978 constitution that guided the Governor-General to allow the 2019 prime ministerial election to go ahead. In countries like the Solomon Islands and neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG), laws regulating political parties and prime ministerial elections risk unforeseen repercussions.
In the 2014 elections, the new law oddly had the effect of weakening political parties. Many of those who had formerly contested as members of political parties calculated that they were now better off running as independents. In PNG, key parts of the 2001 to 2003 political parties legislation were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court in 2010. Involving the courts in the political process inevitably risks delay and contributed to this heightened instability.
Ultimately, the anger that regularly surfaces about the outcome of prime ministerial elections stems from the fact that the country’s citizens have little control over the composition of government. No government can legitimately claim to have a clear ‘mandate’. At the polls, voters are not offered a clear choice between rival visions. They elect individual MPs, who thereafter join opaque factions — usually similar in political complexion.
In a context of loose or non-existent party affiliations, a better way to channel discontent about election outcomes is to have a direct election for the prime ministerial portfolio. In Kiribati, after general elections, parliamentary groups put up rival candidates for the head of government post. The outcome is decided by a nationwide presidential election. As a result, governments have a stronger national mandate and there is a much lesser likelihood of mid-term no-confidence votes. Citizens thereby have a greater direct role in the choice of their government.
Jon Fraenkel is a Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington.