Jan. 8 (IPS) -- The Caribbean region is getting ready for what is being described as a year of political changes with at least four countries gearing up for general elections.
Political commentators are predicting that the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia may be the first to the starting line with elections constitutionally due by April.
The Bahamas, Guyana and Jamaica are expected to follow.
In St. Lucia at least 17 Assembly places as well as the Prime Ministerial seat, virtually handed on a silver platter last year to the former head of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Dr. Vaughan Lewis, are up for grabs.
Lewis won a low-scoring by-election last February when former Prime Minister John Compton announced his intention to step down and named Lewis as his successor. General speculation is that Compton maintains a firm grip on politics from behind the scenes.
The ruling United Workers Party (UWP) holds 12 seats in the Assembly while the opposition St. Lucia Labor Party (SLP) has the remaining five. Analysts however predict a close contest with former Caribbean Community (Caricom) General Counsel Dr. Kenny Anthony now at the helm of the SLP.
Anthony took over the running of the party shortly after the February by-election which saw the resignation of former SLP leader Julian Hunte.
Chief among the election issues will be the state of the economy, with particular emphasis on the faltering banana industry.
A series of protests by banana farmers, all with political undertones, also affected last year's harvests and the SLP is banking heavily on support from banana growers and a constituency of voters who agree with its position that under Lewis the country has seen little or no real change.
There is also the possibility that Jamaicans will go to the polls early this year. Sworn in on March 30, almost five year ago, Prime Minister Percival Patterson is trying to bring some measure of stability to a shaky economy. The downward spiral of the Jamaican dollar seemed to have been halted for the moment with a 12.5 percent appreciation in value towards the end of last year. The rate of exchange now stands at 35 Jamaican dollars to one U.S.
Net international reserves have grown to some $700 million and inflation in 1996, was, according to official statistics in the vicinity of 11 percent.
But the Prime Minister will be hard pressed to explain his administration's intervention in a number of crises in the financial sector, not the least being the debacle that saw the dramatic closure last year of one commercial bank.
There was every indication as well that the trade union movement will use the opportunity of an imminent election to press for improved conditions in the public sector. The Joint Confederation of Trade Unions has already sounded warning bells to the private sector for 1997, saying that it sees the new year as a period of consolidation and growth.
Jamaica is also waging a serious battle against crime and violence. The crime rate, routinely measured in terms of the number of murders, is at an all-time high. Last year a record 918 murders -- a statistic that does not take into account "justifiable" homicides by police officers in the course of their duties and a reportedly high number of unreported drug-related murders -- were committed.
In the Bahamas, 49-year-old Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and his Free National Movement (FNM) will take their chances against an opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) weakened by the absence of the ailing former Prime Minister Lynden Pindling and doubts about his future in politics.
Observers say that should the FNM make good on its controversial 1992 promise to reduce the number of electoral constituencies from 49 to 40, it could enhance its current 32-seat hold on parliament. The country's elections commission is due to meet later this month to consider a number of reforms.
The election is constitutionally due in August, but there is widespread speculation that Ingraham will opt for an early poll. "Perhaps (it will be) as early as the first quarter of the year," one source told IPS.
Pindling's two deputies, Perry Christie and Bernard Nottage, have been running the party in his absence. Nottage leads the opposition in parliament and has often acted as chief spokesman for the party.
As in previous campaigns, the issue of race has emerged as a major pre-occupation of politicians, with PLP spokesmen accusing the FNM of being too close to what remains of a once dominant white elite in the country.
The FNM meanwhile is certain to refer continuously to allegations of corruption and drug-running against the PLP while in office. Pindling himself successfully faced a commission for alleged bribe-taking last year. Two other corruption enquiries are pending and there is talk they may reconvene early this year.
In Guyana, Cheddi Jagan's People's Progressive Party (PPP) will find some difficulty reporting on the economic gains of the South American republic following its spectacular success at the polls five years ago.
Foreign investment in the former socialist republic has reportedly stagnated and the country's physical infrastructure continues to deteriorate. Guyana's electricity service is in shambles and its part-private, part-state owned telephone company has not made good on a commitment to expand services to several rural districts.
Former finance minister Asgar Ally, who resigned in 1995 following a row with his PPP colleagues, has formed his own political party, the Guyana Democratic Party (GDP), and later this year will attempt to become the fourth president of Guyana.
Observers however see an outcome involving primarily the ruling party and the People's National Congress which ran the country for 28 years and lost to the PPP in 1992. With Jagan celebrating his 79th birthday in March, the age of the former leftist politician is certain to be among the major election issues.
In 1992, election day disturbances over alleged electoral irregularities almost turned nasty and the army was called out to quell protests at the electoral office. The elections however received a clean report from the Carter Center for Democracy which, under former president Jimmy Carter, served as independent observers to the poll.
Guyana is the only Commonwealth Caribbean
state with a "list" system of proportional
representation and has allowed two minority parties --
the Working People's Alliance and the United Force --
seats in the 65-seat National Assembly.