Antigua and Barbuda voters head to polls after hurricane
St. John's (Antigua and Barbuda) (AFP)
Voters in the hurricane-wracked twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda headed to the polls Wednesday to elect a new government after Prime Minister Gaston Browne called snap elections.
Browne's Antigua Barbuda Labour Party, which has led the eastern Caribbean country since 2014, is widely expected to secure a second consecutive term.
The prime minister announced general elections on February 24, 15 months before a constitutionally mandated deadline, giving opposition parties less than four weeks to prepare.
And there will be no polling stations on Barbuda, which was battered by Hurricane Irma in September.
As a result, the estimated 400 Barbudans who have since returned home will have to travel to Antigua to cast their ballot. The government has promised to pay for related transport, accommodation and meal expenses.
Just over 51,000 Antiguans and Barbudans are eligible to vote. Voter turnout was around 90 percent in 2014.
Browne says the government wants to protect half a billion US dollars worth of developments currently under construction in the tourism-dependent country, and provide investors with stability.
One of the most prominent ?- and controversial -- projects is a $250 million mega resort being built by Hollywood star Robert De Niro on Barbuda which was devastated by Hurricane Irma in September.
Lowering the cost of living in the country of 100,000 people is high on the agenda.
- Ruling party dominates -
Browne, a former businessman and banker, has pledged to reduce electricity bills, along with the cost of land, and provide more affordable housing, under the slogan "Rebuilding Together." His wife Maria is also running for a seat on an ABLP ticket.
On Sunday, thousands of Browne's supporters donned the party's red colors and walked alongside a motorcade in an event that culminated in a public rally.
The "Delivering Hope" campaign of the main opposition group, the United Progressive Party (UPP), cites revitalization of the tourism and agricultural sectors as key priorities.
Fifty-three candidates will vie for seats in the 17 single-member constituencies -- of which the ABLP currently holds 14 -- in a first-past-the-post system.
The ruling party is alone in presenting a full slate of 17 candidates. The UPP, led by former finance minister Harold Lovell, has put forward 16.
A new party, the Democratic National Alliance, headed by current lawmaker and former UPP representative Joanne Massiah has registered 13 candidates.
There is a handful of smaller parties, a single independent runner and one representing the Barbuda People's Movement (BPM) contesting the small island's sole seat.
Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT) and are due to close at 6:00 pm. Alcohol sales are restricted during those hours and all public schools are closed, as many are serving as polling stations.
Teams representing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are observing the elections.
On its path through the Caribbean in September, Irma caused "absolute devastation" on Barbuda where up to 30 percent of properties were demolished, and 95 percent damaged, Browne had said at the time.
After a 10-year hiatus, voters returned Browne's Labour Party to power during the last ballot four years ago, when he pledged to economically transform the country.
The country became fully independent from Britain in 1981.
© 2018 AFP