(Bloomberg) -- The world’s youngest republic, Barbados, is holding snap elections Wednesday in which the ruling party is seeking a fresh mandate to guide the island out of a deep economic slump.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the leader of the Barbados Labour Party, or BLP, is widely expected to win a second term as voters blame the downturn on the pandemic and dearth of tourists. The BLP controls 29 of the Caribbean island’s 30 legislative seats.
Polling stations are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with results expected later that evening.
The economy grew 3.3% last year, according to an estimate from the International Monetary Fund, after crashing 18% in 2020. Even after restructuring its bonds and entering an IMF program, the nation’s debt burden of 138% of gross domestic product remains the highest in the Americas after Venezuela.
“Barbados will take three to four years to get back to pre-pandemic levels, but remember that we were already in a recession before the pandemic,” said Marla Dukharan, an economist based in Bridgetown.
Mottley, 56, one of the Caribbean’s most high-profile leaders, surprised many when she called elections less than four years into her five-year term.
“I’m concerned that if we enter 2022 as a divided nation we will stunt and frustrate our own progress,” she said.
After the BLP won all 30 seats in parliament in 2018, Mottley restructured the debt -- running at 160% of gross domestic product at the time -- and signed a $465 million loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
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In its latest report, the IMF praised the government’s reforms, but suggested more taxes and less public spending will be needed.
The opposition Democratic Labour Party is promising tax cuts, universal basic income for the poorest, and to fight corruption. After the BLP’s 2018 win, one member jumped the aisle, giving the opposition its only seat in parliament.
While there has been no formal polling in the race, Barbados political analyst Peter Wickham said the BLP is expected to remain the dominant force, even if it loses a few seats amid pandemic-dampened turnout and the growing sense – even from among some of Mottley’s supporters – that a strong opposition is healthy for democracy.
“The prime minister’s level of support remains quite strong,” he said in a telephone interview.
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The island of 290,000 has captured global attention with Mottley’s impassioned environmental speeches and its decision to ditch the British monarchy last year. She’s also one of the hemisphere’s few female heads of government.
What some see as strong leadership, others regard as overbearing, especially since the opposition has been so weak in recent years. Mottley irked some people with her decision to make the nation a republic without holding a referendum.
Most Barbadians are proud of the prime minister’s ability to punch above her weight on the global stage, though a minority dislike what they regard as her high-handedness, said Cynthia Barrow-Giles, a political science professor at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
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