China's Pacific ally Solomon Islands expected to call election for April

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By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands is expected to next week call a national election for April, with China security ties emerging as a key issue as political parties launch campaigns in the Pacific Islands nation.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China soon after the 2019 election that brought him to power, later forging a security pact with Beijing that alarmed Washington and Canberra, and set off a race for influence in the strategically-located Pacific Islands.

A prominent opposition party figure, the United Party's Peter Kenilorea, said he wanted the China security pact reviewed, and would also seek to re-establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Solomon Star newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Opposition leader Matthew Wale said at a campaign launch for a coalition of democratic parties on Wednesday that a referendum could be held to decide the Solomon Islands relationship with China.

"China is a super power both militarily and economically, and there is much also to be gained from a relationship with China... We need to see what our national interest is," Wale said at the livestreamed event.

He criticised Sogavare for not consulting the provinces before switching ties to China, which led to the largest province, Malaita, refusing to cooperate with Beijing for several years.

"The possibility of a referendum is a very real possibility to decide it once and for all," Wale said.

At his campaign launch Sogavare pointed to the Pacific Games held in Honiara, with stadiums donated by China, as a major achievement.

His party pledged to "strengthen the relationship with China through a 'look North' foreign policy, while nurturing ties with other traditional partners such as Australia", a statement said.

The election will officially be called by the country's Governor-General on Feb. 20.

Wale said April 17, expected to be the polling date, was "a day for accountability", after Sogavare had "prioritised Pacific Games over medicines".

Honiara's operating theatres leaked in the rain and patients slept on the floor at the hospital, he said.

In his campaign speech, Wale was critical of "elite capture".

"We have a government that is not controlled by Solomon Islanders... A government that receives money to make sure that the status quo continues," he said.

Wale did not name China in the speech, but the Prime Minister's Office previously confirmed China had provided $2.49 million for a fund spent at Sogavare's discretion, with payments made to 39 out of 50 lawmakers.

Sogavare's office has previously rejected claims the money was used to maintain power.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)