Source: Commonwealth Observer Group (COG).
Antigua and Barbuda is among the smallest countries in the world and faces considerable challenges shared by many small island developing states (SIDS). On January 18, 2023, the country of around 100,000 people went to the polls to vote for a new parliament. The incumbent Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) under Prime Minister Gaston Browne went into the vote with a majority of 15 seats out of 17 seats, yet emerged with a reduced majority of only 9 seats. Although the ABLP retained power, the close election reflects the Eastern Caribbean country’s frustration with the brutal pandemic downturn and a prolonged economic recovery, fatigue with an incumbent government in power since 2014, and concern over the looming threat of climate change.
Prime Minister Browne’s government has presided over a challenging period in office, with the last three years shaped by tough global economic conditions, due to the pandemic and followed by the Russia-Ukraine War. The pandemic shut down the tourist industry, the country’s economic engine, with real GDP contracting by 20.2 percent in 2020—a striking downturn compared to Latin American and Caribbean’s average contraction of 7.0 percent in 2020 and even compared to the tourism-dependent Caribbean, which contracted by 9.4 percent. Although the economy rebounded over the next two years (by 4.8 percent in 2021 and 6.5 percent in 2022), it has yet to fully recover from pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, the economic plunge has hit the country hard with a 2021 report published by UNICEF, assessing that due to COVID-19 alone, the poverty rate is projected to increase nearly sixfold to 24 percent for all persons and 29 percent for children.
The Russia-Ukraine War is also complicating Antigua and Barbuda’s economic recovery. Higher oil prices have squeezed the dual-island state’s cost of electricity. Additionally, rising transportation costs resulted in higher consumer costs, especially for food. Considering that Antigua and Barbuda imports most of its food, rising transportation costs helped push daily costs for most Antiguans. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), national inflation shot up from 1.2 percent in 2021 to 10.5 percent in 2022. The tricky situation led the government to allow fuel price pass-through but implementing targeted subsidies to the transport and fishing sectors to maintain public transportation fares and seafood prices stable.
Moreover, as climate change worsens, the economic costs associated with its impact put even more pressure on the country’s already delicate public finances. In 2021, because of both the government’s tax exemptions to promote reconstruction efforts following the devastation left by Hurricane Irma 2017 and the COVID-19-related public spending, the country’s public debt to GDP ratio rose to high levels. According to the IMF, general government gross debt as a percent of GDP rose from 81.2 percent in 2019 to 101.5 percent in 2020, only heading below 100.0 percent in 2022 (at 91.2 percent of GDP). All the above served as a backdrop to the January 2023 elections.
Reflecting on the need to put the economy back on a sustained economic growth path and provide much-needed economic relief to those in need, ABLP’s political manifesto released on January 10, set five goals for the next five years, including the reduction of the cost of living; investing in water, electricity, and internet connection; repairing community roads; and creating conditions for full employment. To reduce the cost of living, ABLP proposed to increase wages and pensions of public servants, accelerate the clean energy transition to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel imports and bring electricity tariff down, no increase in the value-added tax, provide incentives in the agriculture and fisheries sectors to provide more affordable food, as well as to match the retirement age for all public and private sector workers. On infrastructure, ABLP promised to boost climate resilience infrastructure, and invest in the country’s main arterial roads and highways, work on community roads, improve water supply by installing more reverse osmosis plants, as well as remove duty on alternative green energy products for houses and businesses.
The lead opposition party, the United Progressive Party (UPP), which governed the island-state from 2004-2014, offered a change from what it portrayed as an old and tired government. Presenting itself as more pro-business, it promised to repeal and replace the Unincorporated Business Tax (UBT) and the incremental reduction of the corporate income tax from 25 percent to 15 percent. During the campaign, UPP leader Harold Lovell stated: “A UPP administration will place great emphasis on creating the pro-business, pro-ease of doing business environment. We believe that it is important for us to spur growth by making it easy for small, medium, and other businesses to compete and participate within the business environment.” By loosening regulations, the UPP has implied that they would make the country more competitive globally. The UPP manifesto also included promises to raise the minimum wage, salary increases for public servants, and support for a stable water supply.
The campaign between Antigua and Barbuda’s main parties was hard-fought, though there was little violence. Of note, arsonists set fire to a branch office of the ABLP. Beyond that, 70 percent of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots. The results proved that the ABLP had staying power, but that the events of the past several years have eroded the strong support for the ruling party. At the same time, the UPP demonstrated that it could make elections competitive again after its debacle in 2018 when it won only one seat. Rounding out the picture, Trevor Walker, head of the Barbuda People’s Movement (which is seeking to secure Barbudan people’s rights and land rights), won the sole seat for Antigua’s sovereign partner. One other seat was won by an independent, Asot Michael, who was a former ABLP member.
The political and economic landscape ahead for Antigua and Barbuda is challenging. Prime Minister Browne has a small majority and saw its share of the public vote fall by a little over 12 percent. A six-seat loss in a 17-seat parliamentary chamber is a humbling experience. It also reflects the durability of Antigua and Barbuda’s democratic tradition. Despite the economic challenges of the past three years, Antigua and Barbuda was able to hold elections without any major claims of fraud or discord. According to the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG), the January 2023 election “reflects the will of voters.” The COG as well as the Organization of American States (OAS), which sent its own observer team, did note that there are areas that need improvement, including the need to address dealing with the shortcomings in the accuracy and transparency of the voters’ list and the efficiency of the tallying process.
Looking ahead, with its economy projected to reach pre-pandemic levels after 2025, post-election Antigua and Barbuda faces a challenging economic landscape. The large external shocks hitting Antigua and Barbuda over the past three years led to questions about the country’s growth model.
Indeed, besides its vulnerability to external shocks such as tropical cyclones, pandemics, and global economic crises, the expansion of the tourism sector has also raised environmental and human rights concerns. A recent report commissioned by the Barbuda Council, conducted by the UK-based Global Action Legal Network, pointed out that the privatization scheme used to build new infrastructure projects on the island severely threatens human rights and the environment. According to the report, the laws enacted by Antigua and Barbuda’s government to attract foreign capital not only enable international investors to build luxury properties without the need to consult local communities, but also obliterates hundreds of years of communal land ownership on the island. On February 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed, “in the midst of a global climate crisis and a pandemic, it is shocking to see the development of a yacht marina in an area known for its fragile ecosystem and a golf course on an island that relies on scarce groundwater resources,” calling on the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and the investors to urgently “employ rights-based and nature-based solutions to address current challenges including in conserving and restoring wetlands.”
Moreover, like most Caribbean countries, Antigua and Barbuda’s profitable citizenship-by-investment program (CBI) is also the subject of scrutiny due to its alleged lack of transparency. In March 2022, as the European Parliament voted to phase out its member states CBI programs. Likewise, last year, in an effort to prevent criminals and traffickers from abusing similar programs, U.S. legislators introduced the “No Travel for Traffickers Act” to Congress—a piece of legislation aimed at banning the “participation of countries that sells passports in the U.S. Visa Wavier Program,” as well as mandating “the Executive Branch list publicly all countries with citizenship-by-investment.”
As Prime Minister Browne becomes one of the country’s longest-serving heads of government, a series of challenges loom large. With a reinvigorated opposition, eroding popular support, growing external and internal questions over the country’s economic model, and the need to secure sustainable economic growth amidst the climate crisis, the next five years will be crucial for the ABLP’s future to remain as the dominant political force of Antigua and Barbuda.
Alejandro Trenchi is a Research Assistant at Global Americans for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.
Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and Founding Member of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.