ST. JOHN'S, Antigua (AP) -- Antiguan Prime Minister Lester Bird wanted
Handel's Messiah played so he could make a dramatic entry at an election
Christian leaders objected, and Bird changed the tune, but for many the
message was clear: Antigua's nearly 30-year Bird dynasty has been the
savior of this Caribbean nation.
Yet heading into Tuesday's elections, opposition leaders are hoping that
persistent allegations of corruption -- all vigorously denied by the
government -- have created a sentiment for change in this twin-island nation
east of Puerto Rico.
Forty-two candidates, including independents and representatives of four
political parties, are contesting 17 seats in the House of Representatives.
Results are expected early Wednesday.
In the absence of credible opinion polls, Antiguans believe the fortunes
Bird's Antigua Labor Party could go either way.
Bird is banking on loyalty to a family that brought Antigua full independence
from Britain in 1981 and has won every election since. Bird himself was
elected prime minister in 1994 after his father, Prime Minister Vere Bird Sr.,
"We will win," said government spokesman Tanny Rose, noting the United
Nations ranks Antigua second in development in the Caribbean -- behind
Barbados -- and 29th overall in its quality of life index. "This government has
built this country into one of the most successful in the Caribbean."
Bird has based Antigua's economy largely on tourism, offshore banking and
a growing Internet gambling industry. In recent years, the United States has
applauded Antigua's efforts to toughen its laws prohibiting money laundering.
But in a narcotics report issued last month, the State Department warned
that "Antigua's democratic institutions of government remain under threat
from individuals who have infiltrated government bodies to weaken the
fledgling money laundering and offshore business controls."
The report did not elaborate.
The opposition United Progressive Party contends there are few signs of
prosperity to be seen outside tourist resorts and mansions owned by
celebrities like Robin Leach, presenter of the syndicated "Lifestyles of the
Rich and Famous."
Some streets are open sewers, and the state-run hospital lacks equipment.
Even the government admits 43 percent of the nation's homes lack toilets.
Opposition leaders also objected to the pulling of many opposition ads
government-controlled television and radio stations.
In a nation of 65,000 people, some 52,000 people were registered to vote
-- a high figure that largely stems from the fact that voter rolls haven't been
revised in more than 20 years.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.