Browne urges unity as ABLP demolishes UPP in general election

Thursday, March 22, 2018

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ST JOHN'S, Antigua (AFP) — The prime minister of hurricane-ravaged Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, led his ruling party to a landslide victory in snap elections, claiming 15 out of 17 legislative seats, results showed Thursday.

Browne has pledged "egalitarian policies" and half a billion US dollars worth of development projects he says would create more jobs and economic opportunities in the Caribbean twin island nation of 100,000 people.

His Antigua Barbuda Labour Party, which has led the Caribbean country since 2014, returns to power for a second consecutive term, seizing all but one seat taken by the main opposition, the United Progressive Party (UPP), and another won by the Barbuda People's Movement (BPM).

Browne announced general elections on February 24, 15 months before a constitutionally mandated deadline, giving opposition parties less than four weeks to prepare.

On its path through the Caribbean in September, Hurricane Irma devastated the 62-square-mile (161-square-kilometer) Barbuda, where up to 30 per cent of properties were demolished, and 95 per cent damaged.

As a result, the government decided against opening polling stations on Barbuda for Wednesday's vote, forcing the estimated 400 Barbudans who have since returned home to travel to Antigua to cast their ballots.

The government has promised to pay for related transport, accommodation and meal expenses.

BPM leader Trevor Walker unseated ABLP incumbent Arthur Nibbs, declaring his "decisive win" was because Barbudans were "fed up" with their treatment by the Antiguan government.

Turnout among the 51,258 people eligible to vote was believed to be lower than in previous years, with analysts blaming a lack of a clear, cohesive UPP platform.

UPP leader Harold Lovell, a former finance minister and political stalwart, failed to reclaim the seat he lost in 2014, and was defeated by the ABLP's Melford Nicholas for a second time.

It was also a disappointing night for a new party, the Democratic National Alliance headed by former UPP representative Joanne Massiah. It failed to win a single seat.

Four smaller parties and one independent runner were among the remainder of the 53 candidates vying for seats in a first-past-the-post system.

History was made with Maria Bird-Browne becoming the first premier's wife to be elected to office. The ABLP's Bird-Browne, 26, is the niece of former Prime Minister Lester Bird.

- 'Not here to gloat' -
Browne had hoped the ABLP would claim all 17 seats up for grabs.

"We always knew Barbuda was a toss-up and unfortunately the people of Barbuda have made a decision that will stymie their own progress," he told supporters early Thursday.

But he went on to strike a conciliatory tone in his victory speech.

"We are not here to gloat," Browne said, "but to bring people together and embrace even those who voted against us... none will be abandoned or left behind."

Browne promised improved educational opportunities and health care, higher public sector wages and to transform his own constituency from what is considered a "ghetto" to the "envy of the Caribbean."

The Labour Party ruled the island nation for 28 years from 1976 to 2004 before being ousted by the UPP, which held power for two terms until 2014.

The largely tourism-dependent nation has been independent from Britain since 1981.

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