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Voters out for Solomon Islands' biggest-ever election

Luke Costin -

Polling has begun across the Solomon Islands as the economy and the Pacific nation's new relationship with China weighs on voters' minds.

Most of the 420,000 registered voters will have their say across 50 national seats on Wednesday.

For the first time, the national vote also coincides with elections for eight of the 10 local governments.

Esther Maeluma cast her vote in the National Art Gallery and said it seemed busier than the last national election in 2019.

"I want my country and the economy to be good and that's why I chose my candidate," she told AAP outside the polling station.

Some voters queued outside polling stations from 4am with many more flocking to booths early after seeing the growing crowds on local news outlets.

With early voting open to a select few, voters have spent recent days travelling back to home electorates, quietening the capital Honiara and forcing the nation's main hospital to enter crisis mode due to a lack of staff.

"I didn't used to vote but now I can see that maybe my vote can change the system and the country," hospital worker Loretta Maeohu told AAP.

More than 1000 polling stations are scattered across villages and town centres across the island nation northeast of Cairns, Australia.

Some will be visited by roaming groups of international observers including from Australia and the European Union.

One observer said she was also keenly watching from the sidelines an untold story of Solomons' democracy: female election officials in integral roles.

"It's hard for women to get elected but women make elections happen," University of Queensland Associate Professor Nicole George told AAP.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, regarded for his political acumen but criticised for backsliding on democracy, has asked voters to back his economic plans against a backdrop of closer ties with China.

His term in power, which is his fourth and longest stint in the top office, has been controversial for switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan without parliamentary approval, and overseeing a 28-month COVID-19 state of emergency.

But Mr Sogavare points to China's gift of a $100 million sporting complex and similarly-sized loan to build a Huawei-led national broadband network as examples of why the deal is right for the developing country.

Opposition figures, meanwhile, have campaigned on re-examining elements of the Chinese relationship including a 2022 security pact.

Domestic issues, including health clinics running low on medicines and the rising cost of living, have also played key roles in the campaigns.

Loyalties to candidates through blood or church can also influence ballots, while the illegal practice of vote-buying is known to occur.

"Votes are impacted by so many matters," Dr Anouk Ride, a research fellow at Australian National University's Pacific Affairs department, told AAP last week.

Police have warned they are prepared to quickly respond to any potential repeat of politically motivated disorder that has broken out after past elections.

An anti-government riot also devastated Honiara in 2021, denting the national economy by 6.5 per cent.

"National and provincial politics can be very volatile," Solomons historian, Emeritus Professor Clive Moore told AAP on Tuesday.

"The police need to handle the situation carefully."

Australia has provided $25 million in election assistance including logistical support to get polling stations and ballots to extremely remote areas.

More than 430 Australian military and police personnel are also on the ground to assist with logistics and security, as requested by Solomons authorities.

Counting will begin on Thursday, but the formation of government is not expected for many days.

This article was made possible through the Melbourne Press Club's Michael Gordon Journalism Fellowship Program.

Luke Costin - AAP


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