Political expert opens up about Antigua election
After being away for two general elections, Barbadian political strategist Hartley Henry has returned to the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) to help prevent the Baldwin Spencer-led United Progressive Party from securing a third consecutive term in office.
But with two polls – one conducted by an Antiguan firm and another by the Barbadian-based CADRES – predicting far different results, Henry is keeping his bets close to his chest.
Our Carol Williams had a chat with him ahead of Thursday’s general election about the issues at play and the implications for Barbados.
Q. How did you get involved in the election campaign in Antigua and Barbuda?
A. I basically took a break from Antigua elections for two elections. Persons would recall that my relationship with the Antigua Labour Party goes back to 1984. I was the strategist in 1984, 1986, 1994 and 1999 then I took a break. That’s when I got involved in Barbados politics so it is more or less a homecoming.
Q. Those two years that you weren’t involved, the ALP found itself in opposition. Isn’t that coincidental?
A. Yes, that’s interesting as well. I’m constantly reminded of that. Those who believe in superstition are hoping that perhaps somehow the combination can work again. The reality is that there wasn’t any bad blood. I’ve just been caught up in several other regional races over the years and I also did a domestic stint that would have taken me away for a couple years as well but generally I’m back on the ground albeit late in this campaign and we’ve had a pretty intense battle over the past few weeks.
Q. When exactly did you get involved in the election campaign in Antigua?
A. Full time would have been the last month since the dissolution of Parliament. The reality is that I’d more or less been in contact constantly with the officials over the past two to three months or so but I actually assumed duties as coordinator of the campaign about a month ago.
Q. The Antiguan-based Casuro poll gives the ruling UPP the edge over the ALP, but the Barbadian-based CADRES is saying there appears to be a swing, particularly in constituencies that the ALP was previously weak in, towards the ALP. What are you seeing on the ground?
A. There are several variables that clearly polls are not able to take into consideration. For example, you’ve had an extensive voter registration exercise that has been conducted in Antigua over the last few months. There was tremendous controversy associated with that but the reality is there is a relatively new registration list and then there is also the consideration of the need for persons to physically collect individual identification cards.
So not only would you be reregistered several months ago but you have to physically go and collect your cards. So a lot depends, in my mind, over and above the mood for change and the national mood of the country, on those constituencies and those candidates who were able to persuade their supporters to actually go and collect their cards.
As I speak to you with elections another 48 hours away I think there are still about 3,500 or so persons who have not yet collected their ID cards which makes it very interesting because to do a correct analysis of the poll one would need to get an idea of which of the 17 constituencies would be most severely impacted by this non-collection of cards and what that would mean for some of the candidates.
Q. So you aren’t taking the poll results to heart?
A. No because the whole issue of swing analysis of historical data is not as helpful to me as the campaign strategist in this election as it normally be because of the voter reregistration exercise. A significant number of persons who would have been eligible to vote in the last election are not eligible to vote in this one by virtue of changes to eligibility requirements in terms of “the foreign vote” which has affected persons from Caricom countries who would have qualified in the past who no longer qualify.
My caution to persons who may have gotten, let’s say 49 per cent of the vote in the last election and they think they only need less than one per cent, that could be a little simplistic if you have not taken into consideration the voter reregistration exercise.
Q. What are the issues dominating the campaign trail?
A. The issue of the state of the economy. Both parties are obviously toying around with what is the unemployment rate, what is the official rate and what is the realistic rate. The bottom line is that Antigua and Barbuda, like most other countries in the Caribbean, have been hard hit by recession and other considerations, some of which have been self-inflicted. The bottom line is unemployment and its impact on the economic well-being of the country is a major issue.
The whole question of the prioritisation of projects. The government has had a history of starting several projects that haven’t been completed and making some investments on the behalf of the public that are being construed by many as poorly timed, poorly conceived, as very loosely managed so government inefficiencies vis-a-vis the perspective of both parties is also an issue.
There is also the general issue of the need to attract major investments because, given the economic state of the country, the view is that that domestic market will not be enough to kick start the economy. And one of the major issues of the campaign is which party is better placed to attract new and exciting investment.
Q. You involvement in the ALP comes at a unique time given the leadership change in the party and the seeming division. How challenging was it to get Antiguans and Barbudans to see the ALP as a unit and a viable option?
A. The first challenge I had was to unite the party and get the party in focus. Ideally I would have loved to be on the ground 18 months. One of the reasons perhaps I was chosen is that I go back 15 to 20 years with many of the players and there are scenarios where, perhaps, I am better suited to bring differing interest groups together to get them focused on the fundamental issues at hand which is one of readying themselves for an election and winning that election.
Once we were able to raise the issue beyond that of personalities and leadership, what you find now is the election, particularly in the past weeks, has become far more involved in whither tomorrow. That is why we have wrapped whatever we did in the national flag.
On the cover of our manifesto there was a decision, somewhat controversial, to put the lone living national hero Sir Vivian Richards on the cover of the manifesto. To the innocent eye, it may appear that you’re just using a cricketer but the reality is there is some significance there because we wanted to send a message that we are not going to be perpetuating the tribalistic stuff even though some persons may suggest that they may know the political leanings of Sir Viv. The reality is he’s the lone living national hero of the country and we sought to send a message that we’re all inclusive and the focus now is on Antigua and Barbuda. I don’t think that it’s a secret that Sir Viv’s brother is a candidate for the governing UPP in the election so that would have made that decision more speculative and interesting.
Q. Why should Barbadians be keeping a close eye on the general election in Antigua and Barbuda?
A. The political dynamics are quite similar. Antiguans are known to manifest their displeasure in a little more aggressive way than Barbadians would historically have done. The economies are quite similar in terms of tourism, financial services and what have you.
You’re basically seeing a political scenario unfolding that could provide some insight and have implications in terms of the unfolding Barbados situation because Antigua, even though it has its own experiences as far as twiddling with the tax system and what have you, the economic DNA of the two countries right now is quite similar.
Of course, a lot has to do with the current trend in terms of persons looking for answers and you’ve had changes in several Caribbean islands in the last few years in terms of elections; St Lucia, Bahamas and Jamaica have changed. The electorate is looking for answers, which current trends are suggesting leaders don’t seem to be able to come up with. Even though there is not a large Barbadian population in Antigua, the outcome of elections here obviously is of interest.
And also the question of LIAT the Caribbean airline and a lot may very well depend on which political party in Antigua can better forge cordial relations with the Barbados administration because clearly Barbados as the largest shareholder has some very far-reaching decisions to take with respect to LIAT. And one of the issues in this campaign has been what will become of LIAT . . . .
Also, there are quite a few investors and Barbadian businesses that have expanded into Antigua which is positive for the Barbados economy perspective. Right now, I would think that Pine Hill Diary is the juice of choice in Antigua. WIBISCO is increasing its sales here considerably. You’re seeing the Oran windows, Solar Dynamics and much of the road works has been done and is earmarked to be done by Barbadian firms so Antigua has always been ripe for investments and business opportunities primary by then Barbadian business sector.
Q. How confident are you that the ALP would win the election on Thursday?
A. I am guardedly confident. My concern has to do with the election day organisation. We’ve had several bumps in this campaign, there were times when both parties had
a time to be out front.
I think the launch of the Labour Party manifesto gave it a significant bump. I think there were one or two very crafty strategies by the UPP that gave them a bump but I think the past weekend redounded to the benefit of opposition party in terms of its mass mobilisation but I’m still of the view that it’s pretty tight.