The conduct of the general elections in Solomon Islands on 19 November appears to have been largely successful. An interim report from the Commonwealth Observer Team led by former Prime Minister of PNG Mekere Morauta has praised the conduct of the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), and the public for the conduct of the poll.
However, good electoral process will not necessarily equate to the formation of a good government and a functional and stable parliament. Nor will it eliminate violence and civil unrest.
The introduction of a biometric voter registration system for this election has greatly reduced electoral fraud and duplicate enrolments. The electoral roll has been reduced by over 160,000 names since the 2010 election. Although there were some that missed out on enrolment, such as 3000 students studying overseas, the new system should enhance the legitimacy of the results. Despite the logistical hurdles faced by the Electoral Commission, extensive voter education was carried out and 867 polling stations operated across the country.
Preliminary estimates indicate an enviably high voter turnout of around 85%.
The biggest upset occurred when sitting Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo lost his seat to his nephew and former campaign manager Jimson Fiau Tanagada. Despite some controversy over 300 voters being unable to cast their votes due to boat delays, and some calls for a recount from supporters of losing candidates, Lilo has accepted his defeat with good grace.
Otherwise, the poor representation of women is still an issue. Out of 26 female candidates, only one was elected to the 50-seat parliament; businesswoman Freda Soria Comua unseated Foreign Minister Clay Forau in Temotu Vatud by just 22 votes. The only female MP in the last parliament, Vika Lusibaea, was not re-elected. Unfortunately this low representation is not unusual across the region, but it is far behind Fiji, which elected seven women MPs in its September election.
The poll was carried out without major violence or incident, except for a failed attempt by an electoral official to steal a ballot box in Auki, Malaita. It is worth noting that election days have generally been held without major incident in the Solomon Islands. The more unpredictable period will be the horse-trading over the next few weeks that will determine the appointment of the prime minister and cabinet.
Historically around 50% of Solomon Islands MPs have held on to their seats for one election before being thrown out by voters. This election has bucked the trend, with 35 MPs being re-elected. Solomon Islands expert Dr Tarcisius Tara Kabutalaka attributes this more to the late release of large amounts of discretionary funds to MPs to influence voters rather than satisfaction with their performance. Some of the new MPs should bring some much needed renewal into parliament, such as former University of the South Pacific Lecturer Dr Culwick Togamana. However, the return of so many incumbents will likely entrench dysfunctional government and prevent reform.
Journalist and candidate Alfred Sasako alleged that 26 MPs were under investigation by police. This could be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that there are major corruption problems within parliament. MPs in Solomon Islands, as in other parts of Melanesia, are elected on their ability to deliver direct benefits to their constituents rather than their ability to govern the country. Included in the new parliament are convicted criminals Jimmy 'Rasta' Lusibaea and Manasseh Maelanga. The number of MPs with questionable pasts does not augur well for parliament tackling corruption and serious reform.
Competition over who is elected prime minister will be hotly contested this year.
Solomon Islands has always had weak political parties but despite the introduction of laws to strengthen them earlier this year, more than half of the parliamentary MPs have been elected as independents. The lack of party affiliation and the presence of a number of high profile individuals who might have a tilt at leadership, including four former prime ministers, makes the outcome of the next few weeks of horse trading difficult to predict.
The elimination of outgoing prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, who was rumoured to be forming a pre-election coalition, introduces another element of uncertainty. Although Steve Abana's Democratic Alliance Party won the highest number of seats with seven MPs, their numbers are no guarantee that they will be able to form a coalition with independents. Changes of leadership in 2006 and 2011 sparked protests when voters suspected pressure and meddling from business. It is not out of the question that dissatisfied voters will take to the streets again to protest against the new leader or take part in opportunistic looting.
This period is a key test for the effectiveness of the RSIPF and the effectiveness of Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands' (RAMSI) efforts to build law and order capacity. This is the first election since the withdrawal of RAMSI's military contingent and the draw-down of the police element.
Australia spent A$2.6 billion between 2003 and 2013 in the Solomon Islands. A$1.8 billion was spent on law and order. The RSIPF and RAMSI are taking no chances. The 150 RAMSI police in the country were boosted by 90 officers for the election period. High visibility operations have been carried out across the country and officers deployed to the provinces for polling day are being returned to Honiara. The business community in Honiara's Chinatown is also hedging its bets after the 2006 riots, when 95% of the shopping district was destroyed, by installing extra security measures and engaging more guards for the election period.
Solomon Islands needs a solid government to drive reform and economic development, tackle corruption, resolve land disputes and lessen dependence on aid. It is by no means clear that the new parliament will deliver.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.