Last lap campaigning ahead of March 21 poll
ST JOHN’S – Antigua and Barbuda political parties enter the final weekend of campaigning for the March 21 general elections staging rallies in a bid to woe undecided voters.
While there are seven political parties and five independents vying for control of the 17-seat Parliament, political observers say the contest is a straight fight between the ruling Antigua and Barbuda labour Party (ABLP) and the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP).
Prime Minister Gaston Browne who is leading the ABLP into a second general election, is promising to follow his prime ministerial colleague in Grenada, Dr Keith Mitchell, where he led his New National party (NNP) to a complete rout of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) by winning all 15 seats.
“I am quite sure the results here in Antigua and Barbuda will be just as exciting, as we say 17 none,” Browne said, adding, “I am looking forward to joining him very shortly to celebrate a 17 none here in Antigua and Barbuda.”
But the UPP, which governed this country for ten years before being ousted in 2014, is not perturbed and is instead urging supporters to put an end to the corruption, unfulfilled promises of the Browne administration.
“Antiguans and Barbudans your lives and your livelihood and this country’s future are in your hands. On the left there is hopelessness. On the right there is hope, happiness, opportunity, prosperity and empowerment,” said the UPP leader, Harold Lovell, a former finance minister, who is leading the party into a general election for the first time.
In the 2014 general election, the ABLP won 14 of the 17 seats with the remainder going to the UPP.
Browne called the election more than a year ahead of the constitutional deadline, telling supporters his administration wanted to safeguard billions of dollars in new investments to come to the country in the next few years.
But Lovell said this is not the case.
“Despite his penchant for tossing around numbers, the truth that all of us – outside of the Browne circle – know and live, is that life is harder than ever after nearly four years of this wicked government,” he added.
The leader of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), Joanne Messiah, the former UPP legislator, who is leading her recently formed party into the general election, has also described the government’s performance as one of epic failure, dismissing Browne’s arguments as a “ruse . . . a political gamble . . . by a desperate PM who is devoid of ideas regarding how to jump start a failing economy using creative ways without selling out our country and our people.
“The economy continues to underperform and this fact has a direct correlation on employment and investment (local and foreign). Added to this is the fact that government’s principal revenue earner, the Citizenship by Investment Programme, has virtually dried up,” she added.
There has been no national debate among the leaders heading into the general election, but on Friday, in a prelude perhaps to what the final days of campaign could look like, both Browne and Lovell, appeared on a radio programme here in an 18-minute long no-holds-barred exchange.
The Observer newspaper reporting on the radio programme said they hurled “insults and levelled accusations of corruption at each other while they shouted over each other and the hosts”.
Prime Minister Browne told the radio listeners he was prepared to resign ahead of the elections, if the opposition could prove claims of corruption against him.
Both parties have released their manifestoes promising to improve education, health, agriculture, sports as well as lay the groundwork for further investments in the vital tourism industry.
Prime Minister Browne has described the UPP manifesto as “extensive plagiarism” filled with “worthless promises”.
“What they delivered is not hope, but disappointment,” Browne said.
But Lovell has reminded UPP supporters of the “false” promises made by Browne during the campaign of 2014, including that of delivering 500 homes in 500 days.
“We are offering the solutions for this country . . . we are creative. What we have put forward is doable. What we have put forward is practical,” he insisted.
The campaign has been dogged by allegations of voters being offered cash to withhold their support, an accusation that both the ABLP and the UPP hurled at each other.
“This illegal practice of paying electors to give up their voter identification card, is intended to ensure that these persons would be unable to vote in the upcoming election,” the UPP said in a statement, describing it as “blatant bribery” that is in contravention of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2001.
“This is a corrupt practice under our elections law, but we are not in the least surprised,” said UPP legal advisor, Leon Chaku Symister, adding “it is our intention to take further steps to have law enforcement monitor these violators, with a view to bring them to justice”.
But the ABLP chairman Chet Greene has brushed aside the allegations, demanding that the opposition party bring evidence to support its claim.
In a statement, the ABLP chairman described the claim as “fake” adding that over the last three general elections “the UPP engaged in the skulduggery that they are now trying to attribute to the ABLP in this election” even as he too failed to provide evidence in support of his claim.
The lone candidate of the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM), Trevor Walker, failed in his bid to get the High Court to prevent the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission (ABEC) from having the people of Barbuda cast their ballots on the island of Antigua.
Barbuda was severely affected when Hurricane Irma passed through the Lesser Antilles last September, forcing the government to order a total evacuation of the island. But since then such a measure has been relaxed and many of the 1 600 Barbudans have returned to their homes.
The High Court ruled earlier this week that Walker had jumped the gun with Justice Clare Henry ruling that the matter can only proceed by way of an election petition.
“The judge has ruled against us. She says our application is premature. It has to come after the poll is conducted. That is not our view. Our application is not premature because we are not challenging the election result because no election has been conducted as yet,” said attorney Charlesworth Tabor.
But he is promising that a petition will be filed after the election for the constituency of Barbuda, but only on one condition.
“The plan is, if Mr Trevor Walker loses on election day, then, of course, we will file an election petition to challenge the results because our position is, an election cannot be conducted outside of a constituency and that is a fundamental issue that the court will eventually have to pronounce on,” he said.
But ABEC chairman Nathaniel “Paddy” James said the Commission “has the best interest of Barbudans at heart” and that discussions are continuing with officials from the National Office of Disaster Services (NODS) regarding the transportation to Barbudans to Antigua.
In a statement, Friday, ABEC said the two parties have advanced preparations for Barbudans, who will begin arriving in Antigua from Monday and that to date a number of Barbudans have indicated their willingness to travel to Antigua since hearing of the ruling.
Barbudans have been assured that transportation mainly by ferry along with food and accommodation will be covered.
“We are very glad for the outcome and this decision is in the interest of the people of Barbuda. We will be working with NODS to bring persons from Barbuda over here to exercise their franchise,” James said.
In the last general election, 47 721 persons were eligible to cast ballots, but the figure this year is put at more than 50 000. There are 168 polling stations scattered across the island.
On Saturday ABEC told voters that “our Head office will be open to those persons who still need to replace their ID cards . . . today and tomorrow Sunday”. (CMC)