Solomon Islanders have begun voting in a national election, the first since the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, struck a security pact with China in 2022 and drew the Pacific Islands nation closer to Beijing.

The election outcome will be closely watched by the US, China and Australia for its potential impact on regional security, although Solomon Islands voters will be focused on struggling health services, education and inadequate roads, opposition parties said.

Sogavare has pledged to further bolster relations with Beijing if he is re-elected, while his main challengers want to wind back China’s growing influence.

Swelling crowds gathered early outside guarded election booths in the capital, Honiara, pouring in to cast their ballots when voting opened at 7am local time.

Voting day is an immense logistical challenge in Solomon Islands, a nation of about 720,000 people spread across hundreds of volcanic islands and coral atolls.

Most of the 420,000 registered voters will have their say across 50 national seats. For the first time, the national vote also coincides with elections for eight of the 10 local governments.

Ballot boxes and voting papers have been despatched by boat, plane and helicopter to the many far-flung villages that make up the “Hapi Isles”.

Teams of international observers are on hand to watch over voting in a nation where elections can lead to unrest.

Police from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are on the ground to help the stretched local forces keep the peace.

Preparing for the prospect of violence after the vote, the Chinese embassy in central Honiara hastily erected a temporary steel fence out front this week.

It is the first election since Solomon Islands severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2019, giving its backing to Beijing’s “One China” principle instead.

Voters check the list of electors at a polling station in Honiara on Wednesday. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Solomon Islands has deepened ties with China under Sogavare. The final details of the security pact he signed with Beijing in 2022 are murky but the deal raised alarm in Australia and the US over China’s influence in the Pacific.

Sogavare’s main rivals include Peter Kenilorea, a former UN lawyer who wants to abolish the China pact.

Human rights campaigner Matthew Wale and economist Gordon Darcy Lilo – a former prime minister – are among other prominent opposition figures.

Government critic and opposition figurehead Daniel Suidani, a former provincial premier, labelled China’s actions “alarming” in the lead-up to election day.

“During these past five years, there have been so many things that China was involved in,” he told Agence France-Presse. “It’s really alarming at the moment.”

Sogavare’s embrace of Beijing in 2019 partly fuelled a wave of anti-government riots that tore through Honiara’s Chinatown district. Violence returned in 2021, when angry mobs tried to storm parliament, torched Chinatown and attempted to raze Sogavare’s home.

In Solomon Islands, voters do not choose their prime minister. Instead, they elect representatives who negotiate behind closed doors to form a ruling coalition and pick a leader.

The coalition process can sometimes run on for weeks before the nation is finally presented with a government and a prime minister.

Elections are always boisterous, often tumultuous and sometimes violent in Solomon Islands. In 2000, then-prime minister Bart Ulufa’alu was forced to resign after he was kidnapped by gunmen.

International peacekeepers were deployed to quell post-election violence in 2006, with premier Snyder Rini pushed out of office after eight days.

Honiara residents have frequently cited creeping poverty and the lack of jobs as their main issues in the lead-up to polling day.

Australian Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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