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China-friendly Manele elected as Solomon Islands PM

New Solomon Islands Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele (L) was the country's foreign minister when it abandoned Taiwan in 2019 in favour of Beijing
New Solomon Islands Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele (L) was the country's foreign minister when it abandoned Taiwan in 2019 in favour of Beijing - Copyright AFP NOEL CELIS
New Solomon Islands Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele (L) was the country's foreign minister when it abandoned Taiwan in 2019 in favour of Beijing - Copyright AFP NOEL CELIS

China-friendly former foreign minister Jeremiah Manele was elected Solomon Islands’ prime minister on Thursday, defeating an opposition leader intent on curbing Beijing’s reach in the Pacific nation. 

Manele won 31 votes in a secret ballot of 50 MPs, said Governor-General David Vunagi, the climax of a national election that will resonate in Beijing, Washington, and across the South Pacific.

His opponent, democratic reformer and longtime opposition leader Matthew Wale, garnered 18 votes.

Squads of police patrolled the parliamentary grounds as MPs voted inside, warding off the unrest that has plagued Solomon Islands’ elections in the past.

“The people have spoken,” Manele said, praising the fact there was no repeat of past violence.

“We have shown the world today that we are better than that.”

Pacific watchers expect Manele to persevere with the archipelago’s recent embrace of China, albeit with less bombast than his predecessor Manasseh Sogavare.

Manele was a career diplomat and was foreign minister in 2019 when Solomon Islands turned its back on Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Incumbent Sogavare withdrew from the contest earlier this week after failing to secure an election majority.

Sogavare’s popularity had waned during his latest term as premier, and his leadership was increasingly seen as divisive and heavy-handed. 

Manele vowed a “government of national unity” that would focus on improving the economy and “progress on our road to recovery” after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Solomon Islands, a nation of some 720,000 people spread across hundreds of islands and coral atolls, is one of the poorest countries in the world. 

– Shift in tone –

Manele said bills on a value-added tax, establishing a special economic zone and rules around national resources would be at the top of the new government’s agenda.

Extractive industries such as logging and fishing are the bedrock of Solomon Islands’ economy and often exert an outsize influence on its politics. 

It remains to be seen whether Sogavare — one of the nation’s most consequential leaders — will take a senior role in the new government.

Sogavare was standing behind Manele as the prime minister accepted his new post on Thursday.

“There are questions over whether Sogavare will look to exert influence behind the scenes,” Australian National University Pacific expert Graeme Smith told AFP. 

“Manele is not the forceful character that Sogavare is.”

Sogavare has overseen the rapid expansion of Chinese interests across the archipelago. 

He signed a security pact with Beijing in 2022 that set alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, and harboured a deep distrust of Australia and the United States. 

“I don’t think there will be any notable shift in policy,” said Smith. 

“Although, of course, there will be a shift in tone.”

Wale is a former accountant who had pledged to reform the nation’s creaking democratic institutions, which have long been clogged with corruption.

He has condemned the China security pact in the past and accused Sogavare of selling out Solomon Islands to keep Beijing happy.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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