By Caribbean News Now contributor
ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- The electorate of Antigua and Barbuda on Thursday chose a new government and a new prime minister. The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP), led by 47-year old Gaston Browne, trounced the United Progressive Party (UPP) that had served for two terms from 2004 to 2014 under Baldwin Spencer.
According to preliminary unofficial results, the ABLP was on track to win at least 13 of the 17 seats in parliament and possibly as many as 15.
In a bitterly fought general election that was punctuated by allegations of vote buying and other irregularities by the UPP, the ABLP still emerged victorious, demonstrating the depth of feeling against the Spencer administration that had presided over a devastating period in Antigua and Barbuda’s economic and political history.
Spencer telephoned Browne at 11 pm to concede defeat.
The first UPP casualty in the early poll results was Harold Lovell, who was finance minister as the once buoyant economy declined for five years, pushing the country into the hands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under a stand-by arrangement. As the fiscal deficit widened, the government ran out of money and could neither pay the salaries and wages of public servants nor service the public debt now estimated at US$2 billion.
While, like many other Caribbean countries, Antigua and Barbuda experienced a fall-out from the 2008 global financial crisis, poor economic policies by the Spencer administration led to a contraction of the private sector and mounting unemployment that rose from 5% when the UPP took office in 2004 to over 25%. Poverty and crime also increased dramatically over the last ten years.
Former prime minister, Lester Bird at the age of 76 retained his seat, beating Dr Errol Cort, the minister of national security and labour in the UPP administration. With the defeat of Lovell and Cort, who were regarded as the principal challengers to Spencer’s leadership, the UPP will now be thrown into disarray.
Browne faces a huge task in restoring the economy and enhancing governmental institutions, particularly statutory corporations that have been weakened by UPP cronyism. He will also be thrown in at the deep end of the Caribbean affairs, as he assumes the chairmanship of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) when heads of government meet in Antigua in early July.
A businessman and former banker, Browne enjoys the backing of the business community in his declared plans to abolish personal income tax, revive both local and foreign investment, re-tool and reinvigorate the tourism industry and reset the country’s once buoyant financial services sector.
And as he told cheering supporters at the end of election night: “A new day has dawned – one that Antigua and Barbuda faces with confidence and resolve.”