By Caribbean News Now contributor
ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- Voters go to the polls in general elections for 17 constituencies in Antigua and Barbuda in the longest and most questionable campaign in the history of the twin-island state.
According to some regional commentators, whatever the result of the elections, organisations that dispatch missions to observe general elections in the Caribbean can no longer send in such teams just six days before polling day – by then any mischief has been done, as ruling political parties commandeer state resources and the election apparatus.
There is widespread concern that this is a growing trend in the region. It showed itself in general elections in Barbados in 2013, when charges were levelled at the governing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) for vote buying. Such allegations have intensified in Antigua and Barbuda over the last three weeks.
In Antigua and Barbuda’s case, democracy might be saved by what polls conducted by Barbadian pollster Peter Wickham indicate is a strong desire by a significant number of voters to reject the ruling United Progressive Party (UPP) after ten years of steady economic decline and a perceived continual disregard for the rule of law.
The economy has contracted over the last five years, leading to intervention by the International Monetary Fund when the country’s debt (now over US$2 billion) became unsustainable with a debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of 100% and its fiscal deficit widened continuously.
The country also dropped dramatically to 71 on the World Bank’s league table for Ease of Doing Business. It has attracted no major investment since 2004 when the present UPP government came into office, and unemployment that was 5% in 2004 is now estimated by the private sector to be over 25%, with youth unemployment even higher at over 50%. The rates of poverty and crime have also escalated.
The only large investment that the UPP claimed it was bringing to the country involved a hospital for treating cancer that would be financed by Dr Arthur Porter, who obtained a St Kitts-Nevis passport through the country’s citizenship by investment programme, and for whom an arrest warrant was issued by Canadian authorities in relation to the McGill University Health Centre corruption scandal reported on Tuesday
In the last few months, in the run-up to the elections, the UPP government signed two deals with a company called Bau Panel. One of the deals is for a housing project, under which the opposition Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) says 115 acres of state land will be transferred to Bau Panel on undisclosed terms, except the company says it involves a 68% / 32% respective ownership split between Bau Panel and the government. A second deal with Bau Panel followed in the last month when the government agreed to sell a “majority equity stake” in the country’s only golf course, valued at US$159.2 million for a reported US$3.7 million.
Following reports of these allegations
, Bau Panel denied that it was contributing to the UPP’s election campaign fund, which has been estimated at upward of US$3 million for an electorate of fewer than 50,000 persons.
Despite all this, a poll published on June 10 by CASURO – a company in Antigua whose principal is an employee of the government – says that “if there is an 85% turn out at the polls”, the UPP will win the elections. For his part, Wickham, whose firm CADRES has been polling elections in the Caribbean for 20 years including in Antigua, says that his polls indicate a win for the ABLP.
“The election is effectively three months ‘late’ since it is being held exactly three months after the fifth anniversary of the previous election and is one of very few instances where a Parliament in this region has ‘dissolved itself’,” Wickham stated. “Mercifully, Prime Minister Spencer announced the date a few weeks shy of the point when the election would effectively have ‘called itself’, which would have been yet another precedent that is not worthy of emulation.”
“The outcome”, he said, “is a Caribbean government that has remained in office for five years and three months and an electorate that is weary from one of the longest election campaigns in this region’s history.”
Caribbean News Now has written to the three organizations that are officially observing these elections – the Commonwealth, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Specifically we drew to their attention that “there have been troubling allegations of voter fraud and questionable campaign contributions by commercial interests prior to the arrival of the various observer missions, which were reportedly scaled back once the various electoral observers arrived in the country”.
We pointed out that “this has led some local and regional commentators to believe that the observers’ arrival in the country just a few days before the elections has deprived them of any meaningful opportunity to witness or investigate alleged electoral fraud and/or campaign financing abuse”. And we asked if they were able to explain and/or clarify what, if any, procedures may be in place on the part of the various missions to counter such suggested deficiencies in the observation process.
This will form the subject of a separate report as and when responses to these questions are received.
There is, in the meantime, considerable regional concern that, in the face of such widespread allegations of electoral manipulations and vote buying, if these organisations do not enlarge their mandates to include longer periods on the ground and fuller examinations, they will be rubber stamping potentially illegitimate governments, harming the people of Caribbean countries and participating in the erosion of democracy in the region.
As the electorate of Antigua and Barbuda goes to the polls on Thursday, democracy hangs on their ballots not only for them but for the future pattern that could be set for the region.