The Miami Herald
Wed, Mar. 24, 2004
Family dynasty may end

Plagued by corruption and sex scandals, a powerful family dynasty may learn their fate today, a day after elections in Antigua and Barbuda.

Associated Press

ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- Voters stood in long lines to choose a new Parliament on Tuesday as corruption charges and scandals linked to sex and drugs threatened to topple the family dynasty that has governed Antigua and Barbuda for nearly three decades.

Prime Minister Lester Bird predicted victory in the closely contested elections, saying after casting his ballot, ``I feel very, very confident.''

His Antigua Labor Party headed into the vote with nine of 17 seats in the House of Representatives, seeking a seventh straight term. But polls suggested it could be the party's first loss since it assumed power in 1976. Results were expected to be released today.

''I want to see a change of government because I think the country is fed up,'' said voter John Jacobs, a 62-year-old airline worker, citing allegations of corruption.

Electoral officials estimated turnout at between 75 percent and 80 percent, which would be a record for the island.

An opposition win would mark the first time since 1981 for the Caribbean country not to have a Bird as prime minister.

Lester Bird, now 66, took office in 1994, replacing his father Vere Bird Sr., who died in 1999. The elder Bird served as premier under British rule from 1976 until independence in 1981, when he became the nation's first prime minister.

After casting his ballot Tuesday, opposition leader Baldwin Spencer predicted his United Progressive Party would win 11 seats. ''I am feeling extremely elated and excited,'' he said.

Bird's party has campaigned on claims of economic progress, trumpeting 4 percent growth in during its five-year term in the twin-island nation of 70,000 people. About 10 percent are jobless in an economy based largely on sagging tourism.

The opposition pledged greater unemployment benefits and support for school uniforms and lunches. Bird, meanwhile, promised to cut corporate tax from 40 percent to 25 percent.

Accusations of corruption returned over the weekend as hundreds massed outside Bird's office, where workers removed boxes of what Bird called personal items. Protesters accused him of trying to hide incriminating documents -- an accusation he called ``absolutely crazy.''

The government has repeatedly weathered scandals. In 2002, an inquiry into fraud in the national health insurance program implicated 12 officials, including two former ministers, all of whom were removed. Seven have been charged.

The same year, scandal broke out when a teenage girl accused Bird of raping her and claimed she conducted drug deals for him and his brother. Bird denied it, and an inquiry dismissed the claim, citing a lack of evidence.

In June, three legislators quit Bird's party to protest a decision not to hold a vote of confidence or debate corruption allegations.