Antigua’s elections

The March 12 elections in Antigua and Barbuda ended more or less as expected by the pollsters and analysts, with Mr Baldwin Spencer’s United Progressive Party (UPP) gaining a slender 9-7 majority at the polls on their first appeal to the electorate since they gained their first victory five years ago. Mr Spencer will be somewhat disappointed not to have got a larger majority, but he would have been aware that the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) led by former Prime Minister Lester Bird remained a formidable opponent.

In spite of the late opening of the polls in some constituencies, an OAS Observer Team led by former Barbados Foreign Minister Billie Miller, reported that the elections were free and fair, with the discrepancies concerning the opening of the polls not being seen to give a decisive advantage to one or other of the parties. Nonethless, the ALP has decided to contest the results in four of the constituencies which were affected, though general opinion seems to largely concur with the OAS verdict, and this is perhaps supported by the fact that the poll had a relatively good 81% turnout.

On the other hand it is surprising that after so many general elections in the country such a setback, in terms of election readiness, has occurred, and it is not surprising that the Chairperson of the Elections Commission subsequently announced his resignation, and recommended that his co-members should do the same.

At the last general elections, although the UPP won by 12 seats to five, the results in some constituencies, including that of the then defeated Bird, were narrowly in favour of the UPP. It was not unexpected that the ALP would have been able to consolidate itself into a more favourable position after five years in opposition. But there seems to be a certain consensus, held even before the poll, that the party had not yet succeeded in overcoming the concerns indicated by the electorate in 2004. For one thing, Mr Lester Bird seemed, over the years, to have had difficulty in convincing some members of his party that he should remain the leader after his successive stints as Prime Minister, and give way to a younger person who could lead its reinvigoration. For one thing, the ALP, under both Vere and Lester Bird, has had an uphill battle convincing the electorate that there was not some validity to accusations of corruption in government.

It is not as yet clear what role the so-called Stanford factor played in the election. Antigua has had a long reputation for inducing, or accepting, offers from big foreign entrepreneurs or financiers to establish themselves in the country, and to play a substantial role in its development and in government financing. Before Stanford, there was the Swiss financier Rapoport against whom certain accusations of unseemly conduct had been made. There seems to have been some concern that the Bird government had allowed Stanford too much dominance over public affairs, but in spite of some difficulties with Stanford, the UPP government largely accepted his presence there. Of course the susceptibility of small countries to such attractions is not unknown, and it can be observed in passing that even the prestigious West Indies Cricket Board found itself under his influence – a position which they no doubt felt was justified when the English Cricket Board followed suit.

Interestingly, however, the individual in the UPP government who had played a major role in coping with the aftereffects in Antigua of the charges laid against Stanford by the American authorities, Finance Minister Richard Cort, lost his seat to Lester Bird, almost as narrowly as he had won it in the last general elections. Cort had led the efforts, coordinated by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, to ensure that no meltdown occurred in respect of the Bank of Antigua in which Stanford had a dominating interest, and to which many Antiguan depositors had been attracted. No doubt Cort and the UPP will feel unrewarded for their efforts.

But that initiative indicated a possible source of the electorate’s apparent limited disenchantment with the incumbents, leading Lester Bird to feel that a resort to the law might allow him to get a chance at reinforcing that disenchantment in subsequent by-elections. The fact is that the Spencer government found the public finances of the country, five years ago, in some disarray, and had taken initiatives which they knew could be unpopular in an effort to restore them.

Among these was the reimposition of income taxes, the promise of abolition of which had led to the recall of Vere Bird’s ALP to government after the five year (1971-1976) interregnum in Bird rule led by George Walter’s Progressive Labour Movement.

International financial institutions had pronounced their general satisfaction with the progress towards a recovery of the public finances over the last few years, though it would appear that Mr Spencer and Mr Cort, as Minister of Finance, felt that it was premature to offer the electorate any measures promising substantial relief. So, in a sense, the UPP went to the elections offering more of the same.

Antigua and Barbuda, of course, has gained some positive international attention through its efforts to contest the United States’ opposition to the country’s attempt to use the Internet for off-shore gambling, mainly by American citizens. This effort, commenced by the last ALP government was continued by the UPP, and has been an interesting small country-big country test case on the issue of whether, even when the small entitites win in the major international institutions (the WTO in this case), it is possible to enforce the consequences of victory. But that issue, at least, is one on which the country has shown the multi-party unity which is often demanded by governments in office, but seldom, in our parts, achieved.

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