Political System Government & Elections

Antigua and Barbuda's political system emerged from British political tradition and the development of trade union activism. The ATLU, established in 1940, found that its activism was not completely effective without a political voice. Seeking to gain a foothold in politics, the ATLU established a political arm, the ALP, in 1946. The ALP was structurally subordinate to the ATLU and was staffed by union personnel.

When Antigua and Barbuda achieved associated statehood in 1967, the union executives became political officials, consolidating their power. The political elites retained the political system that had developed from merging colonial politics with trade unionism, a system in which they had attained prominence. As the party gained importance, the labor union became subordinate to it.

From the start, both the ATLU and the ALP were dominated by Vere Bird, Sr., considered the "father of the country" by many because of his early efforts to promote labor unionism and independence. Although the labor union and the political party that stemmed from it were considered to be democratic, power was concentrated in the president, the general secretary, the treasurer, and the eight-member executive council elected at each annual convention.

The faction led by Bird normally was able to influence the outcome of these union council elections and, subsequently, rankings within the party. Conflicts that arose within the union and the party were not resolved by compromise but by purging the opposition. Factionalism became a key characteristic of union and party dynamics.

Emergence Of Opposition Political Parties

Antigua shifted from a one-party to a two-party system after 1967. Establishment of the second party resulted from the personalistic factionalism that split the ALP and the ATLU. George Walter, leader of the dissenting faction, was dismissed from the ATLU because of his outspoken objection to the close tie between the labor union and the political party. In an attempt to regain power, Walter formed both a rival union, the AWU, and an affiliated political party, the PLM.

The ATLU/ALP and the AWU/PLM became competitors for power. Although the PLM initially had factions that opposed the ALP on specific issues, the differences between the two groups were more personalistic than ideological. Both the ALP and the PLM competed intensely for the increasingly important political positions, as power became concentrated in the hands of the majority party and the attitude toward elections increasingly became "winner take all."

The two nonpersonalistic groups within the PLM were the Antigua Progressive Movement (APM) and an unnamed left-wing faction. The APM opposed the ALP on the basis of its close ties with the ATLU, believing that the labor union and the party should be completely independent. When the AWU/PLM proved to behave in the same way as the ATLU/ALP, the APM faction left the PLM in 1969 to form a purely political party, the Antigua People's Party (APP).

The APP could not remain viable as an independent party, however, and soon merged with the ALP. The left-wing faction, led by Tim Hector, also left the PLM, forming the Afro-Caribbean Movement, which later became the Antigua-Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM). Hector had been a supporter of the Black Power movement (see Glossary) as a force in the Caribbean region (see Regional Security Threats, 1970-81, ch. 7).

Despite its alleged pro-Cuban, pro-Libyan stance, the ACLM was regarded by the ALP government as a legitimate opposition party. The ACLM claimed to be a permanent voice of the opposition, never attempting to achieve a majority or to form a government, as that supposedly would compromise its principles.

First Change Of Government In Antigua

In 1971 the PLM won the majority of the seats in the House of Representatives in the general election, ending the ALP's continuous dominance in national politics. During the PLM administration, however, the party instituted repressive social measures, such as limitations on freedom of the press, and ineffective economic policies that contributed to a recession. As a result, the ALP again won control of the government in the 1976 general election.

Some PLM party leaders, including Walter, were tried on corruption charges stemming from their mismanagement while in office. Although Walter was released on appeal, he was barred from the 1980 elections and was replaced as PLM party leader by Robert Hall. Walter again sought a way to political power by creating the United People's Movement (UPM) with some of his supporters from the PLM.

During 1976-80, the ALP implemented policies that revitalized the economy and reopened society. These measures enabled the ALP to consolidate power at the expense of the PLM and UPM. The ALP easily won the 1980 election, campaigning on the basis of improved economic and social conditions. Using the same platform in the 1984 election, the ALP won a complete victory, capturing all seats in the House except for one taken by a pro-ALP independent from Barbuda.

As the conservative opposition parties--PLM and UPM--became defunct, a new opposition party, the United National Democratic Party (UNDP), was established by Ivor Heath in late 1984. The UNDP was formed partly in response to the growing dissatisfaction with the effective monopoly the ALP seemed to have on political power and the subsequent potential for abuse.

The UNDP was composed first of remnants of the PLM and later of the UPM and envisioned itself as the voice of middle-class elements pressing for greater support of private enterprise and stronger action against corruption. Although he lacked specific goals when he established the UNDP, Heath later elaborated the issues of limited tenure for the prime minister and the security of the secret ballot.

The leader of the UNDP also vowed to decentralize the government if his party were to come to power. Specifically, he proposed a system of village councils to give communities a form of local government and more control of their own affairs. In the late 1980s, only Barbuda had local self-government; the other localities fell under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Corruption Scandals & Commission Of Inquiry

The ALP faced corruption charges in the late 1980s. The Outlet, the newspaper affiliated with Hector and the ACLM, accused the Bird administration of having insufficient control over casino operations, peddling passports to non-Antiguans, mismanaging foreign loans, and using Antigua and Barbuda to launder arms shipments to South Africa.

The most potentially damaging scandal, however, was the 1986 corruption case involving Minister of Public Works and Communications Vere Cornwall Bird, Jr., the first son and namesake of the prime minister. The minister was accused of fraud in the negotiation and subsequent misappropriation of a French loan of US$11 million for the rehabilitation of the V.C. Bird International Airport.

Sir Archibald Nedd, a retired Grenadian judge, was appointed to lead an investigation into the matter. During the course of the inquiry, the scandal spread to touch Bird, Sr., who appeared to be attempting to cover up evidence and influence the course of the investigation. Others inside the party, such as Minister of Education, Culture, and Youth Affairs Reuben Harris, provided evidence and testimony that could be seen as harmful to the case of Bird, Jr.

The situation appeared to exacerbate previously existing dissension within the party and the cabinet and contributed to a crisis in ALP leadership. The previous conflict seemed to have been based on use of favoritism by Bird, Jr., in the distribution of cabinet positions and on personality clashes and power struggles within the cabinet.

Sir Archibald concluded in his report that although Bird, Jr., was innocent of criminal wrongdoing, he had behaved in a manner unbecoming a minister of government. Members of the cabinet, Parliament, and opposition forces demanded that Bird, Jr., be forced to resign. Bird, Sr., however, decided to keep his son as a member of his cabinet.

Because the PLM and UPM were still weak, the only viable rival for the 1989 election seemed to be the new UNDP. In the opinion of most observers, however, its chances were slight, despite the ALP scandal, unless the new party were to widen its organizational basis beyond its original middle-class sources of support. The ACLM was not expected to win a significant number of seats in Parliament.