Bahamas head to polls in close election overshadowed by COVID-19

Prime Minister of Bahamas Hubert Minnis addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York
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By Neil Hartnell

NASSAU (Reuters) - Bahamians headed to the polls on Thursday to elect a new government as the Atlantic island chain continued to reel from an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases and slump in the tourism-dependent economy due to the pandemic.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis of the Free National Movement (FNM) is hoping to become the first premier in 24 years to win a second five-year term. But his party was neck-and neck with the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in polls ahead of the snap election.

The PLP has focused its campaign on what it says is the government's mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak and the economy which has seen unemployment surge to an estimated 20% and the fiscal deficit balloon during the pandemic.

Some 119 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed on Wednesday, taking the active number to 1,679 in the nation of just 400,000 people, while the positivity rate has hovered around 25 percent for the past six weeks.

Julian Rolle, chairman of the Public Hospitals Authority, told Bahamian media it had become difficult to staff healthcare facilities properly given about 5-10 percent of staff was quarantined due to exposure to the virus.

"We can continue to wander aimlessly under the visionless, inept, scandalized Free National Movement, or we can usher in greater transparency, equality and prosperity with the PLP," PLP leader Philip Davis told voters during his eve-of-election campaign rally.

Minnis has countered that the PLP cannot be trusted with reviving one of the most prosperous economies in the Atlantic-Caribbean region where tourism accounts for around 50 percent of output and 60 percent of employment.

Under his watch, the Bahamas received a record 1.8 million visitors in 2019 and Tourism Minister Dionisio D'Aguilar says he is targeting 1 million air arrivals for 2021.

"The PLP is a threat to the economic progress that has begun," Minnis said on Wednesday at his party's last rally. "They would stop many of the projects that we started."

Whichever party wins will face some formidable challenges in office due to COVID-19 and its continuing health and economic impact. The scattered archipelago stretching from just off eastern Florida to near Cuba is also still rebuilding after being pummeled in 2019 by Hurricane Dorian, one of the strongest Caribbean hurricanes on record, which killed several hundred people in the Bahamas and left tens of thousands homeless.

National debt stood at $10.356 billion at end-June 2021, according to the Bahamian Ministry of Finance, which forecasts a $951 million fiscal deficit for 2021-2022.

Gowon Bowe, chief executive of Fidelity Bank (Bahamas), a publicly-traded bank, told Reuters: "The reality is that we don’t have much wiggle room left. There won’t be a honeymoon for a new administration. It’s going to be right about the business because there’s a lot we have to right."

(Reporting by Neil Hartnell in Nassau; Editing by Sarah Marsh and Alistair Bell)

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