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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Priestley Habru, PhD candidate, public diplomacy, University of Adelaide

Former foreign minister Jeremiah Manele has been elected the next prime minister of Solomon Islands, defeating the opposition leader, Matthew Wale, in a vote in parliament.

The result is a mixed bag for former prime minister Manasseh Sogavare’s Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party. The party won just 15 of 50 seats in last month’s election, while the opposition Care coalition won 20. But even though Sogavare declined to stand for PM this week, his party still had the upper hand in the vote after courting independent MPs.

So, what kind of leader will Manele be? Will he bring big changes to the country or its relationships with China, Australia and the United States?

Quality-of-life issues remain paramount

One of the authors here (Claudina) voted in Solomon Islands’ general election in November 2014. At that time, political campaigns were low-key and largely localised to particular areas in the country.

Ten years on, we have noticed a huge change in the way campaigns are staged. This year, the livestreaming of campaign events was ubiquitous on social media, which amplified and sensationalised the messages of candidates like never before. Frenzied parades involving floats and legions of supporters were common.

Despite all the fanfare leading up to polling day, the primary concern of ordinary Solomon Islanders was not political wrangling, but the dire state of services in the country. The healthcare system is dilapidated, road conditions and infrastructure are poor and power cuts are constant.

The increased cost of living and lack of educational and job opportunities have only made daily life more difficult for residents.

For example, one voter in Isabel Province told us as part of our research that he did not care what political party his preferred candidate aligned himself with. His main concern was for his MP to continue to provide financial support through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). The fund pays for iron roofing for homes, school fees, outboard motor engines for transport, chainsaws and other material needs.

Many voters similarly wanted their MPs to join the majority coalition so they would be able to access more benefits through the government. This was why nine of the independent MPs who unseated incumbents from the governing coalition came back to join that same coalition going into the PM’s election this week.

Manele got 31 votes from lawmakers, which included 15 from his OUR Party, three from Solomon Islands People First Party, one from the Kadere Party, nine independents and three other MPs who switched allegiances from Wale’s camp.

It was a smart move for Sogavare and his coalition to select Manele as their candidate.

Sogavare’s popularity has waxed and waned over the past two decades. He was forced to vacate the PM post after no-confidence votes in both 2007 and 2017. He survived another no-confidence vote in 2021, which led to violent protests on the streets of Honiara and the destruction of Chinatown.

Though Sogavare managed to hold onto his seat in last month’s election, he won by just 259 votes. It was his narrowest margin of victory since he was first elected to parliament in 1997.

To avoid a similar backlash from voters who did not want to see Sogavare become PM again, the sensible thing for his coalition was to select another candidate.

The 55-year-old Manele is from the same village (Samasodu) in Isabel Province as the governor-general, Sir David Vunagi, which means the two men in the highest offices in the country are closely related.

Manele will likely be an inclusive leader. He has a friendly and humble personality, as reflected in his maiden speech in which he acknowledged his rival, Wale, and members of his coalition.

A more matter-of-fact foreign policy

One of the main reasons Sogavare courted controversy was his increasingly cosy relationship with Beijing since his government switched Solomon Islands’ diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019.

He signed a secretive bilateral security deal with China in 2022 that raised alarm bells in Australia. Last year came another deal to boost co-operation with China on law enforcement and other security matters.

With Manele now at the helm, the country should return to a more business-as-usual approach to diplomatic ties with China. His experience as a career diplomat, public servant, opposition leader and foreign minister will help him navigate the country’s complex relationships without the fiery rhetoric his predecessor had become known for.

In addition, we may finally be able to see what the 2022 security agreement entails now that a former foreign minister is in charge.

Asked by the ABC whether his government would keep the deal, Manele said “yes”, then added:

If there is a need to review that, it will be a matter for China and Solomon Islands to discuss.

However, he may face some pressure from the opposition. Peter Kenilorea junior, the political wing leader of the Solomon Islands United Party (SIUP), has publicly expressed a desire to scrap the security agreement with China.

Manele should also maintain a cordial and perhaps more engaged relationship with Australia. When announcing his PM candidacy this week, he reiterated he would continue the long-held Solomon Islands foreign policy stance of “friends to all and enemies to none”.

What matters most to Solomon Islanders

The broader region must continue to see the plight of ordinary Solomon Islanders as separate from the decisions of its leaders, who at times may not necessarily reflect the wishes of the people.

Ask any Solomon Islander in a rural area what he or she thinks of the security agreement with China and the implications for traditional partners like the US, Australia and New Zealand. Chances are he or she might just shrug it off without uttering a response.

This is because Solomon Islanders have other pressing issues to worry about, such as how to pay school fees, how to feed their families, how to get their kids to school when the river floods and how to get fuel to take an expecting mother to the nearest health centre. This is what matters most to people’s lives, not diplomatic tussles between global powers.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Will Solomon Islands’ new leader stay close to China? –