OUR CARIBBEAN: Antigua politics
AT THE time of writing today’s column, the new Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, was still in the process of concluding the composition of his cabinet of ministers while struggling to ensure availability of basic services like electricity and water. Tough baptism.
The 47-year old leader of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) was sworn in as Prime Minister on June 13 following his party’s crushing landslide victory the previous day against the two-term United Progressive Party (UPP) of former Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.
During the election campaign Browne, a businessman by profession, kept referring to the “economic crisis” in which the country was gripped. But even for his party’s faithful “believers” and the doubting ‘Thomases’ of Spencer’s UPP, came the harsh reality this past weekend that Prime Minister Browne was faced with a fiscal albatross inherited from ten years of governance under Spencer’s leadership.
Consequently, while hurriedly signing a memorandum of agreement with a Chinese investment enterprise involving EC$2 billion (BDS$1.46 billion)
on Monday, Prime Minister Browne was also negotiating arrangements for outstanding debt payments to be paid to avoid threatened disruptions in electricity and water services.
He chose the signing ceremony for the EC$2billion project by Yida International Investment to boast that he had started to fulfill “campaign promises”. Those “promises”, incidentally had included the abolition of personal income tax and construction of 500 new homes.
That signing ceremony with the Chinese company may have good propaganda appeal. The reality may have more to do with the business acumen of the Chinese investment group with whose director, Yida Zhang, Prime Minister Browne signed the memorandum of agreement.
It is evident that while they were negotiating the major investment with the then Spencer-led government, Yida International was wisely pursuing a two-track policy by keeping its options open to deal with an expected new Browne-led government. Question is how much of the initial needed funds could be made available by Yida International?
Prime Minister Browne, of course, has other urgent demands to address. It includes allocation of cabinet portfolios. It seems that when electoral landslides occur in small states, the problem for a Prime Minister is not only how to make as many successful candidates cabinet ministers. There is the additional challenge in having to contend with cabinet preferences.
This is reported to be one of the challenges to be resolved by Mr Browne. He is fortunate in having colleagues in other jurisdictions of the Eastern Caribbean region who have much expertise to share in composition of cabinets, including when the parliamentary majority for the successful party is quite narrow.
Unlike most of the current leaders of governing parties within the sub-region of the Eastern Caribbean, Mr Browne is a first-time leader of a major party – (he succeeded the old veteran Lester Bird – one of the ABLP’s 15 victorious candidates at the June 12 poll. Additionally, he is a first-time Prime Minister.
However, given the substantial majority he controls in parliament, and the intellectual capacity he could summon to avoid being held hostage by those reportedly making demands on cabinet portfolios, Prime Minister Browne could yet surprise his domestic opponents and critics by a willingness to chart a new course in consultative governance.
This could include structured dialogue with the parliamentary Opposition as well as the private sector as a regular feature. So far as structured Government/
Opposition dialogue is concerned, this is still a rarity within CARICOM, for all the pious talk about our multi-party democracy and good governance.
•Rickey Singh is a noted Caribbean journalist.