The Solomon Islands epitomize all that one associates with a Pacific paradise - sparkling blue sea and miles of pure white beaches fringed by palm trees, free from the rush and clamor of city life. August has been a significant month for the islanders who have been voting in a general election for a 50-member parliament. The candidates were drawn from nine provinces and the capital territory of Honiara.
On election day on August 4, citizens turned up by the thousands on foot, by road, or by boat at polling stations across the islands. It was moving to see how much faith they had in the electoral process. Men and women, young and old, waited patiently in long queues for their turn to vote. There were, sadly, instances of people moving from one constituency to another in a vain search for their names on the voters' register and returning home deeply disappointed. Despite this and other hiccups, election day passed off generally peacefully with hard-working polling officials displaying a meticulous observance of the procedures set out by the Election Commission.
If local newspapers were to be believed, there were dark tales of political maneuvering behind the scenes. Big businesses from a number of foreign countries were reported to be backing or funding specific candidates with the intention of gaining access to lucrative contracts for logging, mining, and the other rich resources the islands have to offer. The eve of the election is known as Devil's Night. This is a time when candidates are traditionally alleged to offer sacks of rice, money, and other inducements to influence voters. Once the election was over, winning candidates were locked in conspiratorial meetings in the big hotels in the capital, Honiara, to form alliances and decide which of them would be selected Prime Minister.
Women were particularly disappointed this time because not one of the 25 female candidates who stood for election managed to get through. Women's groups, which had campaigned long and hard to support these candidates, suspected that female voters decided at the last minute to listen to their husbands and voted for one of the male candidates. A woman activist observed that vote-buying was widespread and regarded as electoral culture. She said it was difficult to change attitudes: “Our husbands got rice from the male candidates, wives were afraid they would get found out. Sometimes winning candidates will say you didn't vote for us so we won't support you. Women tend to listen to the men when casting their vote.” There was a story of one man not allowing his wife to vote because the local candidate was her former boyfriend.
Lurking under the surface was the fear of a repeat of the violence which erupted after the last election in 2006 when a section of the population objected to the choice of Prime Minister. Rioting broke out in Honiara and a large part of Chinatown was destroyed before order was restored.
The economy will be the key to lifting the country out of poverty. Steps are being taken to reduce the over-dependence on the logging industry. Experts are warning that the industry is not sustainable and will not survive for more than four years at the current rate of production. They maintain that by this time the natural forest that can be harvested will have been exhausted. The government is now focusing on the agricultural, fisheries, tourism, and mining sectors. Gold mining and palm oil production also appear to have potential, though the latter industry raises concern about the longer-term impact on the environment. However, none of these industries is developing at anything like the pace necessary to supplant logging. Tourist numbers remain lackluster with the vast majority of visitors to the Solomon Islands coming for business. Lack of infrastructure and services remain a core problem in developing tourism; the main islands which offer ideal opportunities for swimming and diving do not have reliable access to power and basic services.
On our final day as we drove from our hotel in Honiara to the airport for our flight out of the country, we passed rows of frangipani and jacaranda trees heavy with pink and white blooms. Set against the backdrop of hills covered with lush vegetation and dotted with luxury houses overlooking the sea, our final image of the town was one of beauty and tranquility. I recalled a conversation with one of the people we met at a polling station on election day who was eloquent about the significance of the election. He said voters were desperate for change and wanted their voices to be heard; the election was a special occasion because it promised a new future. One can only hope that this election will deliver a government that voters like him seek and deserve.