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US, China keenly await outcome of Solomon Islands polls

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As voters cast their ballots for parliamentary elections on Wednesday, the first since the incumbent Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a ‘security pact’ with China in 2022, the United States and China are keeping a close watch.

If re-elected, Sogavare has pledged to strengthen ties with Beijing even further. His principal rivals aim to reduce Beijing’s sway, according to Al Jazeera.

The count of votes in the Pacific Island nation is due to begin on Thursday.

Voting in both national and provincial elections was held on the same day for the first time, with polling places throughout the 720,000-person archipelago opening at 7 a.m. on Wednesday (20:00 GMT on Tuesday).

Security assistance is being provided by police from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

A few voters lined up outside voting places three hours before the polls opened, while a large number of others arrived at the booths early upon observing the gathering numbers. Many of them prioritised improving the nation’s poor roads, education system, and health care, according to Al Jazeera.

Polling stations were closed at 4pm (05:00 GMT) on Wednesday.

This year’s presidential candidates have run on a platform of ‘re-examining’ several aspects of the US-China relationship, notably the contentious 2022 security agreement.

Among them is Matthew Wale of the Democratic Party of the Solomon Islands, who has opposed the presence of Chinese police in the island nation in the past and has promised, if elected, to improve hospitals that frequently run out of medicine and increase educational opportunities, Al Jazeera reported.

In an effort to lessen Beijing’s influence, Peter Kenilorea Jr., a well-known opposition candidate from the United Party, has stated that he wants the China security pact to be ‘scrapped’ and more cooperation with Western nations to reduce Beijing’s influence on the island nation.

In light of stronger links with China, Sogavare, who was elected prime minister in 2019 and is serving his fourth and longest term in that capacity, has asked voters to support his economic goals.

However, Sogavare’s embrace of China in 2019 was partially responsible for the anti-government riots that ripped through Honiara’s Chinatown district. Violence returned to the nation, when enraged crowds attempted to storm parliament, set fire to Chinatown, and destroy Sogavare’s house in 2021 again.