May 22, 2018 / 10:31 PM / a month ago

Barbados leader faces tough election test with economy sluggish

(This version of the story adds additional name to byline)

FILE PHOTO: Freundel Stuart, prime minister of Barbados, addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Robert Edison Sandiford

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) - Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart will attempt to become the first leader of his center-left ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in decades to secure re-election when the Caribbean island goes to the polls on Thursday.

In a battle expected to be closely contested, former minister Mia Mottley is bidding to stop him. She hopes to end 10 years on the sidelines for the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), also a center-left party and the DLP’s main opposition.

If elected, Mottley, 52, would become the country’s first female prime minister since independence from Britain in 1966.

The Barbadian economy has struggled since suffering a sharp contraction in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis. Growth was minimal in the next few years until gross domestic product expanded 1.6 percent in 2016, World Bank data show.

The weak growth has put strains on Barbados’ public debt, pressuring foreign exchange reserves and helping to spark repeated downgrades of the island’s credit rating.

Mottley’s BLP have attacked Stuart over taxation and the cost of living, pledging to provide regular garbage collection, more buses for public transportation, and repair potholed roads up and down the country’s 166 square miles (430 square kilometers).

The government has also come under attack for failing to contain effluent bubbling up from sewers along south coast roads that lead to the sun-kissed island’s famed tourist resorts.

Though Stuart announced the election less than a month ago, the BLP has been in campaign mode since the start of 2018.

Frustration over the longstanding DLP-BLP duopoly has caused a host of new political parties to spring up in the island of some 285,000 people, foremost among them the United Progressive Party (UPP) and Solutions Barbados.

The 67-year-old Stuart took the reins in 2010 following the death of his predecessor David Thompson. The last DLP leader to be re-elected for a second term was Errol Barrow, who was premier, then prime minister, of Barbados from 1961 to 1976.

Reporting by Robert Edison Sandiford, Writing by Dave Graham, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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