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Solomon Islands pick China-friendly Manele as new prime minister | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Solomon Islands lawmakers selected Jeremiah Manele as their new prime minister on Thursday, elevating the former foreign minister who has pledged to continue the Pacific Island nation’s international policy that drew it closer to China.

Manele won 31 votes to Opposition leader Matthew Wales’ 18 votes in the 50-seat parliament, Governor General Sir David Vunagi announced outside the parliament house.

A national election last month saw incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government lose half of its seats but failed to deliver a majority to any political party. The government and opposition parties lobbied intensively for weeks to win support from independents ahead of the vote for prime minister.

Police boosted security in the capital Honiara as newly elected lawmakers arrived at parliament on Thursday to vote in a secret ballot.

The election was closely watched by China, the U.S. and neighboring Australia because of the potential impact on regional security, after Sogavare struck a controversial security pact with China in 2022.

The United States and Australia are concerned about China’s naval ambitions in Pacific countries as tensions rise over Taiwan. The Solomon Islands archipelago occupies a strategic position 990 miles northeast of Australia.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he looked forward to working closely with Manele.

“Australia and Solomon Islands are close friends and our futures are connected,” he wrote on social media platform X.

China’s embassy said in a Facebook post it looked forward to “working with you to develop China-Solomon Islands relations and deliver more benefits to our peoples.”

Sogavare, who built close ties with Beijing during five years in power but only narrowly held his seat last month, did not seek re-election to the top political office and his party backed Manele.

Wale’s coalition of opposition parties had criticized the arrival of Chinese police in 2022, and favored returning to closer ties with traditional aid donors such as Australia and accepting infrastructure aid from the United States.

‘FRIENDS TO ALL’

Speaking outside parliament on Thursday, Manele said the people had spoken, and called for calm, noting a history of violence in the Solomon Islands after elections.

“Today we show the world we are better than that – we must respect the democratic process for electing our prime minister,” he said.

The economy was slowly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 anti-government riots, and the government would soon unveil tax, forestry and minerals policies, he added.

Manele is a former diplomat who entered parliament in 2014, and traveled to China as foreign minister in 2019 to formalize the Solomon Islands’ switch in diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing.

On Monday, Manele said he would keep the “same foreign policy basis – friends to all and enemies to none”.

China has built sporting stadiums, ports, roads and a Huawei telecommunications network in the Solomon Islands, although Australia remains the country’s biggest aid donor.

Lowy Institute research fellow Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat in the Solomon Islands, said Manele has “a strong track record of working well with all international partners”, compared to Sogavare who was “a polarising figure”.

Sogavare was known for thundering rhetoric against western-style democracy at home, and unpredictable diplomacy on the world stage. He criticized Australia, snubbed a White House meeting with Pacific leaders because he said he wanted to avoid a lecture, and declared “I’m back home” while stepping off a plane in Beijing a few months later.

Australian National University’s Pacific expert Graeme Smith said Manele was capable and “a big change in style” for the Solomon Islands.

Manele’s OUR party, which has pledged to build more infrastructure, won 15 seats, and gained four seats under a renewed coalition with two micro-parties. It needed support from independents to reach a majority in the 50-seat parliament. A total of 49 votes were cast with one lawmaker absent.

Wale said on Wednesday that lobbying of politicians ahead of the vote was dominated by “people asking for money and positions”.

The government had failed to create jobs and the economy was dominated by logging and mining companies which shipped resources to China, while health clinics were unable to obtain medications such as paracetamol, he said at a Solomon Islands National University event.

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