CASTRIES, St Lucia (AP) — The party that led this small Caribbean island nation into an alliance with Taiwan faced a serious challenge from Opposition candidates led by a former prime minister in yesterday's elections for control of Parliament.
Five political parties competed, but only the main Opposition St Lucia Labour Party was expected to have a chance at unseating Prime Minister Stephenson King's United Workers Party, which is vying to govern the island for a second five-year term. The Labour Party is led by Kenny Anthony, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 2006.
As the polls closed yesterday evening and the counting of ballots began, many St Lucians gathered around televisions or listened to local radio programmes to hear the results trickle in. Preliminary results were not expected until today.
Anthony's party has pledged to immediately undertake a major review of the island's foreign relations policy if it wins, something political analysts believe means a switch to renewed ties with China.
The issue has been a political football for years. St Lucia, with a population of roughly 170,000 people, had diplomatic relations with Taiwan for years under the late Prime Minister John Compton. But after Compton's United Workers Party was defeated by Anthony's Labour Party in 1996, St Lucia recognised China and dropped relations with Taiwan.
Compton led his party back to power in 2006 elections, however, and promptly re-established ties with Taiwan, incensing Beijing, which called it "brutal interference in China's internal affairs".
China and Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as a renegade province, have waged a battle of "dollar diplomacy", offering countries aid and trade inducements to switch diplomatic recognition from one to the other.
King, who assumed leadership in September 2007 following Compton's death, rarely mentioned Taiwan during the campaign. But since 2007, his administration has been significantly boosted by assistance from Taipei, including roadwork and various economic development projects including a meat processing plant.
During the campaign, King's party took credit for bringing crime under control with a major police offensive and restructuring the force's leadership. Gang violence is trending downward and armed police patrols are a regular feature on residential streets.
"The reduction in crime has been an important achievement by the Government," said 23-year-old nursing student Shervon Alcide, who supported the United Workers Party. "They have done in five years what the Labour Party couldn't do in 10."
King also touted St Lucia's 4.4 per cent economic growth rate in 2010.
But Anthony's party asserted that the United Workers Party has ignored social needs and long-term economic growth. The party's candidates said the focus must be on stopping the spiralling unemployment rate, currently more than 20 per cent.
Krishna Jagroop, a 20-year-old Labour supporter, said the scarcity of work was her top concern.
"I don't think the Government has done enough to create jobs for the young people," she said.
Roughly 151,000 people were eligible to vote yesterday. Observers from the Organisation of American States, the Commonwealth and the 15-nation Caribbean Community monitored the polls.
Voting mostly appeared to run smoothly across the island, but King and Labour candidate Ubaldus Raymond had a heated exchange at one polling station.
Raymond objected to what he asserted was the presence of United Workers Party operatives inside the North Castries voting centre and tried to get them to leave. The two candidates argued for a couple of minutes until election officials stepped in.