Ships in the night – final day of election campaigning in Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands voters board the MV Taimareho 1
Solomon Islands voters board the MV Taimareho 1 in the capital Honiara bound for West Are Are constituency in Malaita yesterday. Image: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

By Koroi Hawkins, RNZ Pacific editor

It is the final day of election campaigning in Solomon Islands and there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the country, which is holding national and provincial elections simultaneously for the first time this year.

There is also significant international interest this year in the outcome of the National Election, as it is the first to be held since 2019 when Taiwan cut its decades-long diplomatic ties with the country — leaving Honiara in the lurch as it moved to formally establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

The elections this week were officially scheduled to take place last year but were postponed, somewhat controversially, so that the country could host the Pacific Games.

Most of the voters RNZ Pacific has spoken to in Honiara so far seem both excited and determined to exercise their democratic right.

In and around the capital, stages are being erected for final campaign rallies and all manner of vehicles are being decked out for colourful and noisy float parades.

Overnight, down at the main Point Cruz wharf, hundreds of voters were still boarding ferries paid for by election candidates trying to shore up their numbers.

Many of the ships are not actually designed for passengers — they are converted fishing or cargo vessels purchased through Special Shipping Grants given to MPs to help meet transportation needs for their constituents.

Voter ferries
One such vessel is the MV Avaikimaine run by Renbel Shipping for the Rennell and Bellona constituency.

Standing room only - Voters aboard the MV Avaikimaine in Honiara before departing for Rennell and Bellona Province. 14 April 2024
Standing room only . . . voters aboard the MV Avaikimaine in Honiara before departing for Rennell and Bellona Province yesterday. Image: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

The man in charge of boarding last night, Derek Pongi, said voters for all election candidates were allowed to travel on the vessel.

Pongi said some people had their fares paid for by the candidates they support, while others meet their own travel costs.

He said the vessel had completed four trips carrying 400 or more passengers each time.

“It’s important because people from Rennell and Bellona can go back and participate in these elections and exercise their right to vote for their member of Parliament and the members of the Provincial Assembly,” Pongi said.

But not all vessels have such an open policy — some of the wealthier candidates in larger constituencies either charter or call in favours to get potential voters to the polls.

A couple of jetties over from the Avaikimaine was the bright neon green-coloured Uta Princess II.

Her logistics officer, Tony Laugwaro, explained the vessel was heading to the Baegu Asifola constituency and that most of the people on board were supporters of the incumbent MP John Maneniaru.

Three trips
He said they had made three trips already, but had to be wary of remaining within the campaign expenses’ maximum expenditure limit.

“It’s only around SBD$500,000 (US$58,999) for each candidate to do logistics, so we have to work within that amount for transporting and accommodating voters,” Tony Laugwaro said.

According to Solomon Islands electoral laws, candidates are also only allowed to accept donations of up to SBD$50,000 (US$5900) for campaigning.

As each ship pulls away from the jetty and disappears into the night, another appears like a white ghost out of the darkness and begins the process of loading more passengers.

The official campaign period ends at midnight today, followed immediately by a 24-hour campaign blackout.

Polls open on Wednesday at 7am and close at 4pm. Counting is expected to continue through until the weekend.

Depending on the official results, which will be announced by the Governor-General, lobbying to form the national and provincial governments could last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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