The Solomon Islands opposition has accused Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of trying to “bulldoze” his contentious bill to delay next year’s elections through parliament.
Sogavare wants to amend the country’s constitution to extend parliament until after it hosts the Pacific Games in November 2023, arguing that Solomon Islands cannot afford to hold both major events in the same year.
But the move has angered the opposition, which says the move is profoundly anti-democratic and risks stoking fresh instability in the Pacific Island country.
Now Sogavare has announced the constitutional amendment will be debated in parliament next week, effectively allowing him to dodge a parliamentary committee hearing where opposition MPs and civil society groups could weigh in on the bill.
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale responded angrily to the manoeuvre, calling it an “abuse of process”.
“Obviously the Prime Minister is not interested in parliamentary practice or good governance, but he wants to shortcut the process,” he said.
“It sets a bad precedent for the future. No prime minister or government should see it necessary to shortcut or undermine parliamentary process, especially on a matter of gravity.”
Prominent opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr also criticised the move, calling it “a massive blow to participatory democracy in our nation” and a “sad day for democracy”.
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office rejected r Wale’s comments, saying the bill had been “on notice” for four weeks during which the the Bills and Legislation Committee (BLC) could have reviewed it.
“It is the BLC that has NOT carried out its mandate and now trying to blame the Government, because the Government has exposed the failure of the BLC,” the statement said.
“It is a sad day indeed for our democracy when a Parliamentary Standing Committee such as the BLC is not functioning.”
National elections are held every four years, and parliament is due to be dissolved in May 2023.
Ruth Liloqula, the chief executive of Transparency Solomon Islands, said the Prime Minister had dropped a “bombshell” on the people of Solomon Islands.
“This is something that they do not want to see happen,” she said.
Liloqula said while the move was not illegal, the Pacific Games was not a valid reason to amend the constitution.
“We are very suspicious about the moves that he’s making and also all the reasons that he’s given,” she said.
“The provision that they’re using in the constitution is not meant for a games event. It is meant for a matter of life and death and for unforeseen crisis beyond our control.”
Liloqula is calling on the country’s development partners to step in and help fund the elections so they can take place at the same time as the Pacific Games.
The Australian government has been watching the debate closely but has been wary of wading into the fray, partly because it does not want to anger Sogavare or be accused of meddling in Solomon Islands’ domestic politics.
The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, has repeatedly stressed that the timing of the election is an internal question for Solomon Islands.
But he has also stressed the importance of the bill going through the democratic checks and balances, telling the ABC last month: “We obviously make the point that there’s a long way to go in this process and it’s important that the proposed change goes through the Solomon Islands Parliamentary process.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesperson said Australia had always taken the view that democracy mattered and democratic conventions were important.
The spokesperson said this was a matter for members of Solomon Islands’ parliament and the people of Solomon Islands.