By Caribbean News Now contributor
ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- The Barbados-based Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) has predicted that the main opposition Antigua-Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) will win an overall victory in next week's general elections in Antigua and Barbuda, notwithstanding alleged widespread vote-buying by the ruling United Progressive Party (UPP) of Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.
In survey results released on Wednesday, CADRES said that it based its predictions on the findings of a poll it conducted in three opposition-held constituencies, which it described as the weakest based on the results of the 2009 general elections.
It said it also intends to poll the three weakest seats held by the UPP.
"It is our contention that these six seats are effectively the most marginal for both parties, and either party’s success in these would be indicative of a likely victory overall," CADRES said.
It said an analysis of the polls showed the ABLP improving its positions in its three weakest constituencies from three to seven percent.
"CADRES is of the opinion that these individual swings demonstrate a general trend in the election, which supports the contention that the electorate is moving towards the ABLP and away from the UPP, which would mean that the ABLP is unlikely to lose any seat it currently holds," CADRES said.
Leadership preference was also tested in the three constituencies and CADRES said in all three ABLP leader Gaston Browne was preferred over Spencer in what it described as a clear emerging trend.
Meanwhile, election observers started arriving on June 5 ahead of next Thursday’s poll. However, their arrival in the country just a few days before the elections has deprived them of any opportunity to witness or investigate alleged vote-buying that has been widely reported in social media and on call-in shows on two privately-owned stations – Observer Radio and ZDK radio.
Further, not having been on the ground in Antigua and Barbuda while the ruling UPP dismissed members of the Electoral Commission, replacing them with hard-core political supporters, such as the chairman Juno Samuel; not being present when Lorna Simon, the holder of the post of chief elections officer – a constitutional post – was dismissed, and only reinstated on the order of the court; and not being present when the government-controlled Elections Boundaries Commission made a last minute attempt to change the elections boundaries, the election observers may gain a false impression of the conduct of the elections.
Vigorous attempts to manipulate the electoral process, including an eleventh-hour amendment to the electoral list that disqualified many voters, took place long before the observers arrived.
Up to June 5, the day that observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS) were due to arrive at the V C Bird International Airport, reports were being aired on the two privately-owned radio stations that operatives of the UPP were giving away iPads, iPods and cash to voters.
Even more troubling, according to reports on the ground, UPP organisers have purchased for thousands of dollars, the electoral ID cards of voters in marginal constituencies to prevent them from voting. The ID cards, it is alleged, are being kept by the UPP controllers until after the elections. Poor and vulnerable people, whose families have been long-time supporters of the ABLP, have reportedly been the UPP’s targets.
This latter claim was openly stated by respected veteran Antiguan journalist, Everton Barnes, who wrote, “Unnamed persons within the United Progressive Party are alleging that there is money in the public domain – ‘filthy lucre’ – intended to entice voters to stay away from the polls and not exercise their franchise. According to these individuals requesting anonymity, the plan is to target known Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party supporters that are particularly poor and vulnerable. Huge sums of money are said to have been offered targeting voters in marginal constituencies in a way unheard of in the history of election campaigns in Antigua and Barbuda.”
The UPP has not issued a denial of Barnes’ report, nor has its leadership pointed out that interfering with the freedom to vote is a criminal offence. In the absence of a robust statement, including that offenders would be prosecuted, the distinct impression is left that the UPP is encouraging the unlawful process. Coupled with the known evidence of political manipulation of the Elections Commission and the Electoral Boundaries Commission, the absence of a UPP statement condemning the unlawful practices being openly alleged, compels local belief that the charges are true.
At the end of these elections, European Community countries – including Britain – may well take an interest in the role played by at least three foreign companies in financing the UPP campaign in exchange for state assets at knock-down prices and runaway concessions. The government of China may do the same thing.
In addition to the OAS observer team, led by Rosina Wiltshire – a former UNDP resident representative in the Eastern Caribbean -- there are two other official observer missions: a small four-person team from the Commonwealth, led by former New Zealand attorney general, Paul East QC, and another representing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) headed by Orrete Fisher, the director of Jamaica’s Electoral Office. The latter two teams arrived on June 6.
All of these teams – arriving as late as they have, when local residents say mischief has already been done – places them at a great disadvantage. It is thought that, to have been truly effective in ascertaining whether the elections are free and fair, the three organisations should have been on-the-ground at least a year ahead of time.
But, they are now in Antigua and they will be able to witness at first-hand what is described locally as the abuse of state resources by the UPP. The state-owned ABS radio and television stations, for instance, are given over almost entirely to free coverage of UPP events and pronouncements. Even what passes for news on ABS radio and television is blatantly false in some instances and biased toward the UPP, under what is said to be the iron fist of the non-elected minister of information, Edmond Mansoor, who is also reported to be a hatchet man for the UPP, allegedly demanding hefty campaign contributors from telecoms companies and other bodies whose operations could be threatened.
In his report on June 5, Barnes also revealed: “When the UPP released its 2014 manifesto, it promised to sell off several state-owned enterprises including APUA telephone and telecoms departments. Reports are that these departments have already been sold surreptitiously to a foreign telecommunications company operating in Antigua and Barbuda. Word is that this company is so pleased with the obvious giveaway that it has pumped US$1 million into the coffers of the UPP for electioneering usages. Just Wednesday, a man who lives in one of the constituencies bordering St John’s, and who is making some expansion to his home, received a call from the UPP candidate for the area offering to finance all the plumbing works for the expansion. I myself am investigating another report where at least six people in another urban constituency received $2,000 each in exchange for their ID cards.”
Barnes is not the only respected journalist or personality who has been expressing these concerns. Others include Colin Sampson, a long-time political commentator in Antigua, and Sir Gerald Watt QC, a distinguished lawyer who was removed as chairman of the Electoral Commission by UPP leader Spencer. Watt refused to comply with UPP instructions over the conduct of the Commission’s affairs.
“This 12 June 2014 general elections in Antigua and Barbuda has become a travesty of democracy and a nasty stain on the Commonwealth Caribbean area that has prided itself on free and fair elections and respect for civil and political rights. A great responsibility therefore rests with all three observer missions. They can do nothing now to stop the proven manipulations and the reports of vote-buying and vote-blocking that have been alleged against the ruling UPP, but they can at least ensure that ballot boxes are not padded. A weakness of the electoral system is that votes are not counted at all places of voting – in many instances, ballot boxes are transported to places of count. If the observer missions are to play a serious role, they should at least ensure that there is no tampering of the ballot boxes,” a source told Caribbean News Now, on condition of anonymity.
In the 2009 general election, the UPP won 9 of the 17 seats, with the ABLP winning 7. The remaining seat went to the Barbuda People's Movement.
Widespread vote-buying alleged ahead of Antigua-Barbuda elections