Voters defy warnings to board crowded Solomons ferries

Luke Costin |

Honiara residents are boarding overcrowded vessels to return to their home towns in order to vote.
Honiara residents are boarding overcrowded vessels to return to their home towns in order to vote.

Crowds have swarmed ferries in the Solomon Islands capital as the Pacific nation prepares for one of its most important polls.

The nation 1600 kilometres northeast of Australia has become the subject of a China-US tussle after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing.

With early voting available only to a select few, Honiara residents registered in their home towns flooded the city’s main ferry wharf on Saturday to begin the journey home.

Authorities have warned people against boarding overcrowded ferries but locals were willing to roll the dice.

Larwood Biah will spend more than six hours on a return trip to the northern province of Malaita on Saturday.

But it’s not time wasted – instead ensuring the teacher does not have to stand for the 12-hour journey to his home in Western Province.

Turning to look at the crowd swarming the ship, he said “it’s a bit like we’re risking life travelling to vote”.

“This is life in the Solomon Islands,” he told AAP with a laugh.

People wait to board a crowded ferry in Honiara
Crowds have swarmed ferries in Honiara despite authorities warning against overcrowded boats. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Health, improving the economic system and the high cost of living in the capital are all on his mind.

“It’s important – I have to exercise my right to cast my vote,” he said.

Accidents involving ferries, the cheapest way to move between the islands, can occur in the Solomons.

A ferry to Malaita province sank in rough seas, killing 28 people, during a government-ordered COVID-19 evacuation in 2020.

Another Malaita-bound service sank in 2013 while carrying almost 400 people but miraculously all survived.

Voters board the already overcrowded Fair Glory ferry in Honiara
Ferries are the cheapest way to travel between islands in the Solomons but are not without risk. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Vote-buying remains an issue in the Solomon Islands, with elections in some constituencies in 2019 overturned and re-run after court decisions.

Malaita man Lloyd Moffat Konni told AAP he hoped people would make use of money, and not just ask for a handout.

While corruption and weaknesses in the rule of law are present, Freedom House ranks the proudly democratic and deeply Christian country among free nations, ahead of Israel, Brazil and Fiji.

The Solomons remain the third-highest recipient of Australian government development assistance.

Almost $500 million has been spent in the past three years, primarily on health, economic growth and policing assistance, according to DFAT.

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