TWO QUITE significant political developments occurred in Antigua and Barbuda late last month that could well influence the outcome of the next general election due by March 2014 with both the governing United Progressive Party (UPP) and the opposition Antigua Labour Party (ALP) facing new challenges for state power.
The first development involved a highly controversial 'economic citizenship' scheme that may require an official response not only from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) but the wider Caribbean Community on the sensitive issue of intra-regional free movement of Caricom nationals.
The second occurrence was a surprising leadership change in the opposition Antigua Labour Party (ALP) that ended a 66-year-old tradition of always being associated with the family name of its patriarch, Vere Cornwall Bird.
With his passing, papa Bird's son, Lester, lawyer by profession, became his successor and was to successfully lead the party for 18 years, ten of them as Prime Minister, ending in 2004, and since then as parliamentary Opposition Leader.
Health problems plus the age factor at 74, were advanced as primary reasons by those who favoured a leadership change at the party's scheduled convention for last month.
But Bird's more passionate loyalists felt otherwise and urged him to face the leadership challenge from a once quite loyal and articulate colleague, Gaston Browne, banker by reputation.
Browne emerged victorious by capturing some 56 per cent of the votes declared and by last week both victor and vanquished were said to be working out the modalities for a future "constructive relationship...amid reported post-convention bitterness among their respective supporters.
Their shared commitment is to avoid Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer's ruling PUP, currently in its second term, from exploiting the ALP's leadership change to secure a third term—some 16 months away.
Vexing issues for Caricom
The big vexing political issue currently, however, is the government's passage in the House of Representatives, against the opposition's objections, of what's officially titled the "Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship Investment Act 2012" .
This form of "citizenship...is a device utilised by some developed and underdeveloped states to attract wealthy investors.
It is known to be a risky venture if laws are not carefully framed to avoid loopholes that could be exploited by criminal elements and financial 'sharks' bent on evading taxation while, at the same time, having the effect of diminishing the sovereign citizenship of nationals by birth.
Major developed nations, such as USA, United Kingdom and Canada have laws to grant citizenship that's linked to economic investment but tight conditionalities, among them length of residence, are involved and constantly under review.
In our small Caricom region, however, there have been the early examples of Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis, moving to attract "investors, offering "economic citizenship...while playing 'footsy' politics on residential status with particular clientele.
Among these "investors for "economic citizenship"—at times privately canvassed,could be, for example wealthy Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Arabs, as well as Europeans and Americans—all with little or no requirements for reasonable periods of resident status prior to obtaining citizenship that comes with national passports
Now Antigua and Barbuda, the Caricom state with a long-won reputation as a delightful tourism resort, but also bearing the burden of political and financial corruption under varying administrations of both the ALP and UPP, has come up with legislation by which a foreign national—from wherever—could be awarded citizenship in less than a fortnight.
This quick-to-get 'economic citizenhip' that confers all the rights and privileges of a national by birth, can be facilitated, according to the new 'Citizenship by Investment' legislation, passed by the House of Representatives and soon to be approved also by the Senate—once the potential 'investor' contributes to identified projects, including "a charity designated by the Minister.
In most Caricom states it normally takes between five to eight years for a Community national living and working in the particular jurisdiction to be approved for citizenship.