The Antigua Election – Enter the Obama Era

The first significant general election in the English-speaking Caribbean in the post Obama campaign era is showing that it has learnt a lesson from the great North. If the campaign of the incumbent United Progressive Party (UPP) coalition with its tenuous first taste of political power is anything to go by, it has learnt the power of the internet in reaching potential voters.

While both main parties have brought in their spin doctors from the more sophisticated neighbours the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) campaign doesn’t seem as Web savvy as their opponents who are heavily into the social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Hi5 with skilful use of YouTube

The ALP by contrast focuses its Web presence around its own Web site and has a channel on http://www.mogulus.com.

By and large there does not appear to be any passionate issues driving the parties, which seem content to fire character missiles at each other and invoke immediate bread and butter issues with no medium or long term vision for the islands of 84,500 (July 2008 est.)

The centrepiece of the ALP manifesto as recited by former prime minister lester Bird, who is making a last stand to regain a seat in the House of Representatives, is the abolition of income tax and the reduction of sales tax as part of the now internationally clichéd stimulus package:

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The ALP's Lester Bird.

The ALP's Lester Bird.

UPP Leader and Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer (top photo) who has been urging voters to return him to parliament, has been promising economic empowerment through divestment of state assets to the public:

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The manifesto of the UPP, a coalition of three parties – Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement or ACLM, Progressive Labour Movement or PLM, United National Democratic Party or UNDP – boasted of several achievements in their first term since March 2004 including the provision of school meals and uniforms, unemployment relief and increased pensions for senior citizens.

Hovering in the background is the enigmatic spectre of Allen Stanford, bringing the dimension of international drama and the debacle of global high finance and fraud that is rattling the international economy.

What impact will Stanford’s Antiguan citizenship and influence on the government have on the election? That is still unclear but he was seen as primarily associated with the ALP administration that for decades was embroiled with one international scandal or the other.

There was the imbroglio when Vere Bird junior, brother of ALP leader and then prime minister, Lester Bird, was sanctioned and prevented from holding public office but not indicted by an official inquiry into a gun running scheme that involved Israelis and Colombian drug lords. There were Chinese and Italian land grabs that helped keep civil servants in their jobs when the treasury in St John’s was empty. And there was Gerald Bull, owner of the Canadian-American company called the Space Research Corporation that was involved in the manufacture and shipment of arms through Antigua to various regimes including apartheid South Africa.

The twin-island state has survived as a sort of benevolent dictatorship and pimps paradise that managed to avoid a descent into the tribal politics, abject poverty or violent crime known in its big brother Jamaica, or the descent into political anarchy as its other near relatives Grenada or Trinidad and Tobago which experienced violent attempts to usurp liberal democracy.

Some might even think that the people of Antigua and Barbuda have too even a temperament in the face of the political and economic environment they’ve faced but it may have served them well. The country has had no agricultural or manufacturing base to speak of as it, perhaps wisely, pulled out of sugarcane cultivation in the 1970s – an easy decision because of low yields and poor soils, as workers were lured into tourism. The rum industry survived by importing molasses from sister Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states that are yet under the yoke of dying European Union preferences.

Baldwin Spencer’s 2004-2009 administration is only the second non-ALP regime in Antigua since 1951 and the first non-Bird family government since independence from Britain in 1981. The first ALP loss saw the 1971 – ’76 George Walter premiership under a People’s Liberation Movement administration that came during the unfortunate period of the first oil crisis. This shook the global economy and gave the ALP the government on a platter it held on to through independence, until 2004.

ALP administrations were not known to be big on keeping national statistics. In the early 1990s as tourism boomed and casinos attracted manual workers from Dominica and Guyana and sex workers from the Dominican Republic, a government officer told the Caribbean News Agency there was no need to keep unemployment figures as there was full employment.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Antigua and Barbuda economy experienced solid growth from 2003 to 2007, reaching over 12 per cent in 2006, driven by a construction boom in hotels and housing associated with the Cricket World Cup. Growth dropped off in 2008 with the end of the boom. Tourism continues to dominate the economy, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of GDP and 40 per cent of investment.

GDP based on purchasing power parity was $1.615 billion in 2008 translating into about $19,100 per capita. The labour force figure of 30,000 is based 1991 estimates and the breakdown by sector based on 1983 estimates is agriculture 7 per cent, industry 11 per cent and services 82 per cent.

For whatever reason 39,626 of the 43456 electorate turned out to vote last election, 21,892 of them casting their lot with the then opposition, without the current bells and whistles of the internet hankering for their votes. The UPP got 12 of the 16 Antigua seats to the ALP’s four with the Barbuda seat going to the Barbuda People’s Movement’s (a UPP affiliate) Trevor Walker after a runoff caused by a tie. This was a dramatic turnaround from its heyday when the ALP often romped home with all the seats.

The question in 2009 is whether the UPP can reverse the curse that hounded the 1976 PLM and like Obama, convert the gloom all around into and opportunity but in this case for its own survival.

Clips and photos provided by Julian Rogers, News Channel Caribbean

Share your thoughts on this issue in the comment box below or on Abeng Radio’s My Turn. Call 202-684-6494 or use Skype to reach us at abengnews.

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