Gaston Browne, a one-time banker who campaigned on turning around Antigua and Barbuda’s struggling economy, became the country’s youngest prime minister Friday after his Antigua Labor Party returned to power after a 10-year drought.
The Labor Party won 14 of the 17 seats in a landslide over the United Progressive Party led by Baldwin Spencer. Spencer, 63, was seeking an unprecedented third, five-year term for his party, which has struggled to govern the eastern Caribbean nation amid a hobbling financial crisis, high unemployment and rising crime rate. In the end, even paying government salaries became a challenge for the UPP.
“The former prime minister of this country literally escaped defeat,” Browne, 47, said in an interview with ABS radio in Antigua, referring to Spencer’s win by about 30 votes. “It tells you literally, all of the seats were in play.”
Browne was sworn in shortly after noon along with new Attorney General Steadroy “Cuttie” Benjamin.
According to the elections office, more than 90 percent of Antigua and Barbuda’s 47,000-plus registered voters turned out to cast votes in the hotly contested balloting. But even before all of the votes were counted, Spencer conceded defeat telling the nation, shortly after midnight, that he has “accepted the verdict of the people of Antigua and Barbuda at this time.”
“The electorate of this country would have made a statement, they would have spoken in clear terms, they would have made a choice,” he said. “The verdict of the people of Antigua and Barbuda is one, which says that they are willing …of having the Antigua and Barbuda Labor Party governing this country at this time.”
“I wish the new government well and I say so with all sincerity because as far as I’m concerned, what is important now is for us to come together as a nation,” he said. “Let the healing begin almost instantly and bring the country together in the interests of Antigua and Barbuda.”
Among the party’s heavyweights booted out of office was National Security Minister Errol Cort, who lost out to longtime politician and former Labor Party leader Lester Bird. Bird, 78, and his family had ruled Antigua for 27 consecutive years until 2004 when Spencer’s UPP came to power amid corruption scandals.
For his part, Spencer defended his ruling government’s record saying that given the circumstances and the conditions under which they had to function, he believed they “had done the best we could have done.”
“History will certainly prove that the United Progressive Party under the circumstances would have performed reasonably well,” Spencer said.
Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, Antigua’s economy has been hard-hit by the global economic crisis. Adding to its financial woes was the 2009 arrest of Texas financier R. Allen Stanford. Stanford had long been the country’s unofficial banker, and one of the region’s largest private employers. His financial empire quickly crumbled, however, after he was arrested by U.S. officials, and sentenced in 2012 to 110 years in prison for defrauding investors in his offshore bank.
Browne, who broke down after his swearing in, promised not to betray the people’s trust. Also as the country’s finance minister, he promised to run a tight ship to prevent “the excesses of the past.” He also announced a strong focus on the youth, whose unemployment is around 40 percent, saying they will play a role in his cabinet and in development initiatives.
“We want to make sure we have a rapid response culture in Antigua and Barbuda so that in the next 12 months, Antigua and Barbuda can emerge as one of the best places to do business,” he said.