HONIARA – The election of veteran politician Manasseh Sogavare as the Solomon Islands’ new prime minister sparked violent protests in the capital Honiara Wednesday, with riot police deployed in a bid to maintain order.
Eyewitnesses reported unrest in Chinatown and at least one other area of the city after Sogavare won the backing of parliamentarians for a record fourth term in office.
Shops and offices closed and workers were advised to go home as police and community leaders appealed for calm.
Following an inconclusive election earlier this month, Sogavare won the backing of 34 of 50 members of parliament in a controversial run-off, with his opponents boycotting the vote.
In a brief statement, the 64-year-old said “God” had delivered the outcome.
“I wish to assure the nation that we are listening to what has been said, it has not fallen on to deaf ears,” he said.
It is the first election on the self-styled “hapi isles” since thousands of Australian-led peacekeepers left in 2017, and there will be fears the islands’ fractious politics will be reignited.
The Solomon Islands has struggled repeatedly with ethnic tensions and political violence since gaining independence from Britain in 1978.
A 2006 election prompted widespread rioting in the capital with shops in Chinatown looted and burnt down, forcing foreign peacekeepers to step in.
Within hours of the ballot Wednesday there was similar unrest.
Crowds of protestors shouting and waving tree branches were denied access to parliament and were heading to Chinatown to hurl rocks and trash businesses before being contained.
“Each time an election of this sort happens, we have to move to my parent’s place where it is safer,” said a food outlet owner in Chinatown, who asked not to be named.
“Imagine each time, we have to pack our stuff, get the kids and move out from our place. It had been like this since the big riot in 2006. It is like the normal thing to do now.”
By Wednesday afternoon rioting was centred on the Kukum area of the city. There were unconfirmed reports of a locally owned hotel and casino being damaged in the attacks.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force urged residents to “go back to your homes” and “accept the announcement of the Prime Minister with a good heart.”
The Australian government said it was monitoring the protests and endorsed “calls for calm by Solomon Islands authorities.”
“We recommend exercising normal safety precautions in Solomon Islands overall and to avoid protests and political rallies, as they may turn violent.”
Sogavare’s last term in office ended abruptly in a 2017 vote of no confidence amid unconfirmed allegations he had received donations from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
The Solomon Islands is one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, but is being courted by China which has been investing heavily in the Pacific. The Solomons, where only about 50 percent of the population have access to electricity, is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
In the run-up to the election, several Solomon Islands politicians, including caretaker prime minister Rick Houenipwela were reported to have said they would review diplomatic relations with Taiwan if elected.
Houenipwela was a member of Sogavare’s Democratic Coalition Government for Advancement.
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold.