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The tiny Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands will be holding elections on Wednesday, but what is at stake is a lot more than just a potential change in leadership.

China and the US will be watching closely to see who will be gaining power over the more than 900 islands making up the Solomon Islandsas both seek to expand their influence in the South Pacific.

Current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, a 69-year-old karate blackbelt who will be seeking an unprecedented second consecutive term, switched the Solomons’ allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing back in 2019.

He then shocked the US and its allies by announcing a security pact with China in 2022, which, according to a leaked draft of the agreement, would involve China in maintaining civic order through the deployment of “armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces”.

Mr Sogavare, who has been made prime minister four times, first came to power in 2000.

But he may also have China to thank for still being at the helm of the country.

It was in fact reported by ABC that Beijing had given more than $3bn (£2.4bn) to bribe MPs to support Mr Sogavare against a no-confidence motion in parliament in 2021. Mr Sogavare’s government denied the report.

More on China

Even if Mr Sogavare fails in the upcoming vote, observers suspect China will be backing more than one pro-Beijing candidate in the murky contest for the Solomons’ top job in an effort to cement Beijing’s growing influence.

The election was due to take place last year but Mr Sogavare delayed it saying the nation could not afford hosting the regional Pacific Games and holding a vote in the same year.

Mr Sogavare accused Australia of “an assault on our parliamentary democracy” for offering to carry the cost of the election so that it could go ahead as scheduled in 2023.

Do the elections work?

Voters from among 700,000 people spread over the more than 900 islands that make up the Solomon Islands will elect 50 lawmakers from 334 candidates.

Only 21 candidates are women and none of them is currently in office. The only two women in the current parliament will not contest the election.

The 50 newly elected MPs then decide which of them will become prime minister.

No political party ever wins the 26-seat majority needed to form a government in a system derived from the former British colonial masters’ Westminster system.

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The eve of the election is known as Devil’s Night when candidates and their campaign teams are notorious for resorting to underhand means to skew results in their favour such as by buying votes.

Horse trading

That can take the form of paying voters’ transport costs to get home to electoral districts where they are registered to vote, offers of cash for the promise of a vote or paying influential local leaders to voice support.

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Ballots are supposed to be cast in secret but there is apparently enough doubt about the integrity of the system to sustain the practice of vote buying and discourage voters from reneging on their promises to vote for the candidates who paid them.

After the election, MPs form camps around hotels in the capital Honiara where horse trading takes place to persuade a majority to back various candidates for prime minister. Ministerial posts are offered as inducements.

Foreign business figures from the mining, logging, retail, and tourism industries also take part in negotiations, fuelling concerns MPs might put personal gain ahead of constituents’ interests.

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