Solomon Islands picks China-friendly Manele as new prime minister

Solomon Islands picks China-friendly Manele as new prime minister


Solomon Islands picks China-friendly Manele as new prime minister

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(Reuters) – Solomon Islands lawmakers selected a new prime minister on Thursday, choosing foreign minister Jeremiah Manele, who has pledged to continue the Pacific Island nation's foreign policy that drew it closer to China.

Governor General Sir David Vunagi announced outside parliament house that Manele had won 31 votes, to Opposition leader Matthew Wales' 18 votes.

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

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, and two camps lobbied to win support from independents ahead of the vote for prime minister.

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

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.

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.

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

Manele said outside parliament on Thursday "the people have spoken", and called for calm, noting a history of violence in 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 travelled to China as foreign minister in 2019 to formalise 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".

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".

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.