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Silent election battle lines in Antigua
In tourism-dependent Antigua and Barbuda, there are few immediate clues of intense jockeying for political space between the two dominant Antigua-based parties. March 12 will mark five full years since the re-election of the United Progressive Party (UPP) via a two-seat majority in Antigua and support from the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM) on the much smaller sister island. The tally had been UPP nine seats to the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party’s (ABLP) seven and the BPM one.
It was not an easy victory by any means. The UPP had to wait almost 18 months to exhale, owing to legal challenges by the ABLP over election irregularities in 2009. The High Court at first ruled that three of the UPP’s nine seats, including the constituency won by Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, had to be vacated because of electoral irregularities. This was eventually overturned by the Eastern Caribbean Appeal Court in October 2010.
Today, the only visible evidence of a political contest in the city of St John’s are the giant Christmas billboards bearing air-brushed photographs of ABLP leader Gaston Browne, his wife and infant child, against a backdrop of party red. The stairs to Browne’s Market Street office are much less elegant and patient constituents await their turn. The last time this reporter visited the office, it was for an interview with then opposition leader, Spencer.
Journalist-turned-ABLP politician, Colin James, commented that perhaps the next visit will be reminiscent of that 2003 encounter. Browne is even more confident. “I have been literally mauling him (Spencer),” he declared in an interview with T&T Guardian. The source of the ABLP leader’s confidence is a November 2013 poll by Barbadian political analyst Peter Wickham, in which, by a margin of 18 per cent, respondents expressed a preference for Browne as prime minister of the country.
“The reason for this,” Browne said, “is they (UPP) have done such a miserable job.” A Spencer interview was more difficult in coming. Over a period of five days, his public relations director, Maurice Merchant, appeared unable to pin him down, despite a personal commitment to be interviewed. When eventually caught in a media scrum after opening a media workshop on the Caricom Single Market, Spencer spoke slowly and deliberately.
“The United Progressive Party is really, if I may say so, the only choice for Antigua and Barbuda at this particular point in time,” he said. “From the point of view of record we can fight this election...and we believe that the people of Antigua and Barbuda will answer that question in a very positive way in favour of (the party).”
Browne had by that time contested the UPP “record” with the somewhat amazing claim that the country had lost 10,000 jobs in the last five years. Official records point to a workforce in the vicinity of 30,000. The country’s population is about 85,000. The ABLP leader, however, claims that between 2009 and 2011, close to 25 per cent of the country’s GDP had been lost. “Part of it is as a result of the global crisis,” he conceded.
“But we believe it is the result of bad policies, incompetence and the corrupt practices of the present regime.” Asked about his own party’s record of alleged corruption, the former banker acknowledged there had been “a perception of corruption within the (party) and I would say, for the most part they have been allegations.”
In 2011, former health minister under an ABLP administration, Hilroy Humphreys, was fined in court after facing fraud charges linked to the country’s Medical Benefits Scheme. Then prime minister, Lester Bird, had accepted his resignation in 2002 following damning disclosures during a commission of enquiry into the issue. “Compared to what is happening today, that is child’s play,” said Browne, who took over leadership of the party in 2012 following a bruising contest with Bird.
“As the new leader of this organisation...as a total political novice, I don’t see how anyone can hold me responsible for the excesses of the past.” “However, they can hold me responsible for the conduct of officials of the (ABLP) after we would have resumed the governance of the country.” To prove the point, he cites development of a “code of ethics” which he said would “provide a form of self-regulation for my candidates.”
As the election pace intensifies, battle lines in the country’s 17 constituencies are being quietly drawn—much on the radio airwaves but nowhere near the fabled 365 beaches or at the busy cruise ship terminal at bustling Heritage Quay. Everyone’s talking about uncharacteristically chilly north winds at night. But clearly, it’s not only Browne who thinks the winds of change will follow, only in relatively hushed tones for the moment.