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Antigua Opposition Celebrates Election of New PM - 2004-03-24

After 28 years in power, the Antigua Labor Party has been defeated in general elections in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Results show the opposition United Progressive Party winning at least 12 of the 17 seats in parliament. The election marks the end of one of the world's longest-lasting political dynasties.

Election results from Antigua and Barbuda show labor-activist Baldwin Spencer's United Progressive Party, easily defeating longtime Prime Minister Lester Bird's Antigua Labor Party. Voter turnout was higher than 90 percent in some constituencies.

Mr. Bird conceded defeat early Wednesday bringing to an end the 50-year political dynasty begun by his father, Vere Bird Sr. who led Antigua and Barbuda to independence from Great Britain in 1981. Lester Bird succeeded his father in 1984, and his Antigua Labor Party has dominated political life in the Caribbean nation until now.

Antigua and Barbuda is a center for Caribbean tourism, yachting, and offshore gambling. But in recent years, many Antiguans have seen their once-enviable standard of living decline. The country's public sector debt and current accounts deficit has ballooned in recent years, leading to a slowdown in direct foreign investment.

Lennox Linton of Observer Radio says many Antiguans have also become weary of bad governance issues associated with the Bird family, and felt it was time for a change.

"Keep in mind the Bird administration has been in charge for 28 years," he said. "They came into office in back in 1976. So, you can understand that this has been a very long run for the Antigua Labor Party. You got the sense listening to conversations and talk shows in recent weeks, that people really had come to the point where they felt it was time for a change."

Antigua's new Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, has promised to improve unemployment benefits as well as improve the country's educational system by offering school uniforms and meals to needy students.

In his concession remarks, Lester Bird defended his party's record and denied charges that his defeat was tied to allegations of bribery, the misappropriation of funds from the country's national health insurance program, and allegations that he and his brother were involved in a sex and drugs scandal with an underage girl.

The Bird family has dominated political life in Antigua and Barbuda since Vere Bird Sr. led a campaign for higher wages for sugar cane cutters 50 years ago. But allegations of scandal have dogged the family.

Vere Bird Jr. was accused of shipping Israeli arms to Colombia's Medellin drug cartel in 1989, forcing him to resign his cabinet post. In the 1970s Lester Bird was named in a U.S. federal grand jury investigation that examined how Antigua was being used as a transshipment point for armaments being sent to the apartheid regime in South Africa.