Election petitions

This post looks at election petitions that have been lodged by losing candidates following a general election or, occasionally, a by-election. I ran a search on ‘election petitions’ on the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute (PacLII) database for Solomon Islands and found court decisions for 31 petitions of national elections. I’m not certain that I’ve got a complete set but it is at least an interesting sample, available as a Word doc here.

Ups and downs

It is striking that two elections (1993 and 1997) account for 20 of the 31 petitions in my sample. By contrast, in five other elections before and after those two, there have only ever been one to three petitions lodged. On the face of it, we might expect a lot of petitions since many results are extremely close and many are also marred by allegations of irregularities or corruption.

There is, however, a simple reason for the few petitions at most elections: the odds of success are slim and they are expensive for the loser. Only three petitions have been upheld by the courts and in those three cases, only once did the petitioner then win the subsequent by-election.

In 1981, Francis Saemala challenged Billy Gatu’s by-election win in West Honiara, only for Billy Gatu to win again when the by-election was re-held later in the year. In 2001, William Gigini successfully challenged Eric Notere’s election win in Gao Bugotu but another candidate – Basil Manelegua – eventually took the seat. Only John Maetia Kaliuae has ever benefited from lodging a petition when he challenged Charles Dausabea’s victory in East Honiara in 1993 and then went on to win the by-election in February 1994.

Why so many in 1993 and 1997?

So we can explain the elections where there were few petitions but why there was such a spike in 1993 (at least 7 petitions) and 1997 (at least 13 petitions)? It is hard to do better than mere speculation, but here are three possible explanations.

First, the forbears of the now-infamous RCDF were introduced in March 1993 (just prior to the election) in the form of a SI$100,000 ‘discretionary fund’ for MPs. This was subsequently re-named as the ‘Constituency Development Fund’ and increased to SI$200,000 by the Billy Hilly government. It is likely that this extra cash for incumbent MPs created greater potential for irregularities and thereby created greater scope for subsequent petitions and Premdas and Steeves (1995, p.44) directly attribute the high number of 1993 petitions to this reason.

Second, both of the governing coalitions formed after these elections only a single-vote majority, so there were strong incentives for both sides, but especially the opposition, to encourage petitions against their opponents. Finally, on both of these occasions, the opposition in question was led by the tenacious veteran, Solomon Mamaloni.

An analysis of the 1993 petitions lends some support to these last two hypotheses. Four petitions were lodged against Billy Hilly supporters (Joses Tuhanuku, Oliver Zapo, Allan Paul and Jackson Piasi – all of whom went on to become Ministers in the Billy Hilly government), whilst two were lodged against strong supporters of Mamaloni (Charles Dausabea and Bartholomew Ulufa’alu). The final petition was lodged against the newly elected MP for Baegu Asifola (and now member for Lau Mbaelelea) Walter Folotalu, who initially sided with GNUR but defected to the NCP when he was appointed Education Minister in late 1993. I should note that Allan Paul also briefly defected from the NCP in November 1993 but later decided to rejoin ( see Fugui and Wate 1994, p.459).

And in 1997, at least 7 of the 13 petitions were made against members of Ulufa’alu’s SIAC government (Ulufa’alu himself, Stephen Aumanu, Baddeley Devesi, Mannaseh Sogavare, David Holosivi, Stephen Tonafalea and Alfred Araha Hairiu). Of the remainding six petitions, Mamaloni-supporter Dausabea was challenged once again (this time unsuccessfully) and unfortunately I don’t know the affiliations of the other five.

This evidence is hardly conclusive, especially since some of the NCP or SIAC members were hardly rusted-on supporters . Nonetheless, I think it is plausible that several of the petitions in both 1993 and 1997 can be attributed to power plays at the national level.

Provincial analysis

Looking at the petitions by province, Malaita had more than its fair share – 10 of the 31 – which may be because Malaitan seats are generally more hotly contested than the average (at least in terms of the number of candidates per seat). The same explanation may apply to Honiara, which only has three seats (and only two before 1997), but which accounts for another four petitions. Most of the remaining petitions are accounted for by the two other large provinces – Western (5) and Guadalcanal (4). The remainder are spread between Isabel (3), Temotu (2), Choiseul (1), Makira (1) and Rennell & Bellona (1).

I also found nine petitions of provincial assembly or Honiara Town Council elections on the PacLII database. Once again, only one of these petitions was upheld (and that was over 30 years ago, after the Western Provincial Assembly election on 7 December 1979. Again, Western (3), Honiara (3) and Malaita (2) accounted for most of the petitions – the final one was lodged against Mark Kemakeza after the 5 December 2002 election in Central Province.

Serial challengers and hot seats

A few petitioners and electorates stand out. Francis Saemala was a serial but unsuccessful challenger (in West Honiara in 1981, and in Aoke Langa Lange in 1993 and 1997). William Gigini also challenged in Gao Bugotu twice (1997 and 2001) and one occasion was successful (2001).

In addition to Aoke Langa Langa and Gao Bugotu, three seats have also had petitions on more than one occasion: East Honiara (1993 and 1997), Malaita Outer Islands (1997 and 2006) and Baegu Asifola (1993 and 1997).

A comment on the data

My data are derived from a search for ‘election petitions’ on the PacLII database. One limitation of this database, for my purposes, is that it only records court decisions in relation to petitions, not all petitions lodged.

For example, the number of petitions lodged after the 1997 election may even be much higher than the 13 I have recorded. In a judgment (1/12/1997) relating to some of these petitions, the then Chief Justice Muria states that:

Following the last General Election twenty three (23) election petitions were lodged with the High Court of Solomon Islands.

Likewise, I only have a record of seven 1993 petitions and yet Premdas and Steeves (1995, p.44) say there were 10 and Islands Business Pacific (Oct 1993, p.45) states that there were ‘nearly a dozen’. My guess is that in both cases, the other petitions were withdrawn before they could be considered in court. If this is the case, perhaps there is not too much harm in ignoring them.

Update (16/05/10): I noticed a couple of small errors in my original post – I claimed that Walter Folotalu was a member of NCP. In fact, he was aligned with GNUR when his win was petitioned. He only joined the NCP government later; coincidentally, around the same time that the petition was dismissed (November 1993). Also, although Allan Paul was a member of the NCP at the time when petitions were lodged, I think it is relevant that he later resigned (albeit briefly, before rejoining the government) since it indicates that he wasn’t a ‘rusted on supporter’ of NCP. I have amended the text above to reflect these points.

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