(THE ECONOMIST) – IT IS an odd, and oddly timed, election. Last month Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, set March 21st as the date for a snap parliamentary election.
That is 18 months earlier than it needs to be, and barely six months after Hurricane Irma blasted Barbuda, the smaller of the Caribbean state’s two islands. Barbuda’s 1,600 inhabitants were evacuated to Antigua. Most have not returned.
It gets odder. All the voting for the 17-seat parliament will take place on Antigua. This means that those Barbudans who returned to the island after the hurricane forced all inhabitants to leave will have to take a 40km (25-mile) ferry ride in order to have a voice in choosing Barbuda’s single MP. Mr Browne says the decision is out of his hands.
By law, each constituency must have just one presiding officer to monitor the vote. The electoral commission has stationed that person in Antigua, to which most Barbudans have been displaced.
Mr Browne could have tried to change the law and did not. This has sharpened the resentment of some Barbudans towards the inhabitants of the country’s richer, bigger island. The electoral commission will lay on a ferry service to bring voters from Barbuda to the polls, but that does not satisfy some islanders.
Barbuda’s one seat could determine whether Mr Browne remains in office. The island has long been split between his Labour Party and the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM), which is allied to the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP).
Two recent elections to Barbuda’s parliamentary seat were decided by a single vote (the BPM won the constituency in 2009, the Labour Party prevailed five years later). Although Mr Browne’s party has a large majority in parliament, elections have produced big swings. Barbuda’s seat may thus prove to be important in the final reckoning.
For Barbudans the stakes are also high. In February the government ended a system that had prevailed on the island since soon after the end of slavery in 1834, under which land formally belonged to the government, but was held in trust for the community and therefore was effectively communal land. Barbudans were able to lease houses on tiny plots of land. Most of the island’s territory was shared woodland or pasture for livestock.
Under the amended law, Barbudans can buy their plots for one Eastern Caribbean dollar (about 37 cents). The government says this will allow them to borrow for rebuilding after the hurricane. But many suspect its real motive for ending the old system of ownership was to let outsiders buy up a significant slice of the land for development.
The island has pink-and-white beaches and a frigate bird sanctuary. It is surrounded by clear blue water. But it has few tourists. The only big employer is the local council (controlled by the Labour Party).
Robert de Niro, a multiple-Oscar-winning actor who has been the country’s “special economic envoy” since 2014, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire, want to change that. They plan to build “Paradise Found”, a $250m resort on the site of K Club, a getaway favoured by Princess Diana.
The plan is contentious. Trevor Walker, the leader of the BPM, says the developers are offering too little rent (a one-time payment of $6.45m for around 1,100 acres of prime land). Now that communal ownership has been abolished, the investors can convert their 99-year lease into freehold ownership.
Mr Walker claims that the government approved the project without assessing its environmental impact. Antiguans will get most of the jobs, Barbudan critics say. In February the country’s high court ruled that Mr Walker could proceed with a challenge to legislation that provides the basis for Paradise Found’s lease on the property.
The election offers a quicker route to blocking the resort in its current form and restoring communal ownership. The BPM and its opposition ally say they will do both if they win. They claim that the odds of that happening would be better if Barbudans who stayed on the island could vote at home. Perhaps that is why Mr Browne likes the idea of putting deep blue sea between voters and the polling station.