March 1, 2007 / 5:33 PM / 12 years ago

Amid Anna Nicole furor, Bahamas gears for election

NASSAU (Reuters) - It’s not obvious from the news coverage, but amid the fuss over the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith’s burial in the Bahamas the country is gearing up for an election.

A Bahamian resident with a t-shirt stating "We Love Anna Nicole" hops over a fence as tourists, locals and media gather in front of courthouse for paternity hearing in Nassau, Bahamas February 26, 2007. REUTERS/Hans Deryk

The ruling Progressive Liberal Party is bidding for a second term against the Free National Movement. Prime Minister Perry Christie’s government will likely hold the election by May 2, according to PLP chairman Raynard Rigby.

Smith, whose death in Florida on February 8 triggered a media frenzy, has already become an election issue. Immigration Minister Shane Gibson resigned on February 18 after a newspaper published pictures of him embracing her on a bed, leading to accusations that the government granted her residency too easily.

Smith’s notoriety has also showered new publicity on the Bahamas, an Atlantic vacation destination where the government is running on its economic record and handling of the all-important tourism sector.

The government also says it deserves credit for attracting foreign investment and boosting islands away from the main New Providence island.

It cites central bank figures of 4 percent GDP growth in 2006, up from 1.6 percent when it took office.

“The Bahamian people will recognize that there has been a significant result of the policies of the government and they are better off today than in May 2002 when we assumed office,” Rigby said in an interview.

“We feel fairly confident that the Progressive Liberal Party will be returned to office,” he said, citing internal party polls.

The opposition counters that voters are fed up with what it calls Christie’s indecisiveness, mismanagement and government incompetence.

“The main issue is ... trust,” said opposition leader Hubert Ingraham, who was prime minister from 1992 to 2002. “They have broken their word to the electorate,” he said in an interview.

ANNA NICOLE FACTOR

Interest in the Bahamas should peak when Smith is buried next to her son at a cemetery outside the capital. The billionaire’s widow who aspired to the fame of Marilyn Monroe is the talk of the islands.

The issue is sensitive in a country of 300,000 that draws millions of visitors annually and where foreign companies have acquired large tracts of land for tourism developments.

Opposition leaders charged that the government’s handling of Smith’s case shows its incompetence, and two political commentators said the race had tightened.

“The Anna Nicole debacle and all the publicity regarding that ... has energized the base of the (Free National Movement) and hurt the PLP. They are losing ground and something needs to happen to swing the momentum back,” said an attorney close to the opposition.

Rigby said Gibson was right to resign but argued that the issue had “no political traction.”

At a rally last week the prime minister attempted to refocus attention on the opposition, describing an episode under their rule when an suspected pedophile was granted residency.

A PLP advantage is its history guiding the country to independence from Britain in 1973 under Lynden Pindling, the first black prime minister, said Felix Bethel, political science professor at the College of the Bahamas.

Many older Bahamians see it as the party of the black majority, while the opposition grew out of a predominantly white group known as the “Bay Street Boys,” which dominated politics and business prior to independence.

D’Andre Wright, 18, a first-time voter, said the Smith story was simply a distraction. “That is fine and dandy but we need to focus on what the FNM can do better than the government,” she said.

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