By Caribbean News Now contributor
ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- Democracy in the twin-island Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda is reportedly being gravely undermined by a process of vote-buying by the ruling United Progressive Party (UPP) on a mammoth scale, underscoring a case made by Canada for legislation to be introduced throughout the region to limit campaign financing.
General elections are to be held on June 12 and the UPP, led by Baldwin Spencer, is seeking a third five-year term in office, and, from accounts on the ground, it is stopping at nothing to buy votes to achieve its purpose.
A former employee of the state-owned Antigua and Barbuda Broadcasting Service (ABS) has been openly boasting that he was given a large sum of money to spend in Spencer’s constituency after Peter Wickham, a pollster from the neighbouring island Barbados, stated publicly that Spencer was within two percentage points of losing his seat in the national legislature.
According to the former ABS employee, who was speaking in earshot of many, although he had been estranged from the UPP government following a falling-out with Edmond Mansoor, the non-elected minister responsible for government propaganda, he came back on board with Spencer for considerable remuneration to buy as many votes as possible, especially among the young.
Whatever may be the truth to these claims, it is certainly evident that the UPP is spending a great deal of money on the election campaign, estimated by local experts at approximately US$3 million so far. The total number of voters in the two small Caribbean islands is just under 50,000.
The question being posed by foreign observers – and there have been several representatives of foreign governments following events closely -- is from where is the UPP getting the money it is spending freely on giveaways, large public rallies to which supporters are bussed, UK and US political consultants, transportation and high-cost musicians brought into the country from neighbouring islands, and to give cash for votes?
The source of the funding is said to be companies to which the UPP government has given sweetheart deals. It is alleged that these companies have kicked-back money to Spencer and other key players in his government for campaign finances.
The opposition Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP), which is seeking to derail Spencer’s ambition rule the country for a third consecutive term, has questioned a number of deals concluded in the last few months.
Among the deals being questioned are cheap sell-offs of state assets to a firm called BAU Panel, which records indicate was liquidated in Britain in 2012 after two years of operation and now operates out of a tiny office in Geneva. BAU Panel’s principal director is a man named David Kendrick about whom no one on Antigua has any clear information, not even accounting firms and banks.
Originally, Kendrick said he was in the island to build houses then suddenly, in addition to housing schemes in five areas of the island, the UPP government announced that it was selling the country’s only golf course to BAU Panel for US$3.7 million, when official valuations put its worth at US$159.2 million.
The ABLP leader, Gaston Browne, a former banker and businessman, described the agreement signed between the government and BAU Panel on the housing project as nothing short of a “land-grab”. The government is giving BAU Panel 115 acres of prime land to construct 5,000 houses with money the company plans to borrow from local banks. Browne insists that the same project could be done by local contractors.
BAU Panel and Kendrick also surfaced last year in connection with allegations of fraud
made by them against housing minister Stanley Felix in relation to a low-cost housing scheme in Saint Lucia involving the development of approximately 400 acres of land.
Other sources of questionable campaign financing in Antigua and Barbuda are alleged to be two telecommunications companies -- one recently arrived on the island that has been given major concessions and access to state-owned utility poles; the other company, in a deal whose details have not been disclosed, has been given the contract to install CCTV cameras in the capital St John’s. The same company has given the UPP government iPads and iPods to hand out to government workers ostensibly “to improve government efficiency”.
Two other deals are linked to China: one involves a Chinese entrepreneur whose source of funds is unclear but who wants to establish a major tourism project for which the government would have to part with considerable acreages of state-owned land and ignore any harmful impact on the environment.
The other deal was consummated three years ago when the UPP government bought a Chinese power plant through a German intermediary for the state-owned Public Utilities Authority. The power plant is said not to be new and it has never delivered the electricity for which it was bought. Engineers at another privately-owned electricity provider to the government, Antigua Power Company, say that the Chinese plant has never functioned and never will. Despite repeated calls for an investigation into the Chinese power plant deal, the UPP government has steadfastly refused. It has also refused to present any information on the deal to the Public Accounts Committee of the Legislature even though required to do so by law.
In its ten years in office so far, the UPP government has failed to deliver on major promises made to the electorate in two general elections in 2004 and 2009. No new foreign investment has been made since 2004 and the economy steadily contracted since 2008 causing local businesses to close. Unemployment has jumped from a low of 5 percent in 2004 when the UPP came to office to more than 25 percent – even though the government insists on citing a figure of 12 percent from 2010, since which time the economy has experienced negative growth for three years and minimal growth in 2013.
The rapid decline in the economy forced the Spencer government to seek a stand-by facility from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help pay civil servants and government contractors as well as meet at least interest payments on US$1.5 billion of debt – an astronomical figure for a country with a tiny population of about 85,000 people. The debt to GDP ratio is close to 100 percent when account is taken of the debts of statutory bodies and companies that the government has not paid for services such as oil and water.
On May 1, the IMF in a public statement criticised the government, saying that the country’s “fiscal situation is unstable” and that the “macroeconomic performance has deteriorated in the months following the Stand-by Arrangement with the Fund”. It also revealed that the government’s fiscal deficit has “widened substantially”, causing the IMF directors to initiate “post-program monitoring” especially as the monies lent to the UPP government is “500 percent of quota”. The IMF concluded that the “economy is facing headwinds” and that “risks are high”.
The Antigua Christian Council – an umbrella organisation of religious bodies – organised a debate between Spencer and Browne on the issues confronting the country. According to the Council, Browne accepted immediately but Spencer never even acknowledged the written invitation.
In the meantime, the UPP – in a dire economic climate – is spending millions of dollars on the election campaign, including by what observers claim is nothing short of blatant vote-buying in some constituencies.