Three years after Britain suspended the government and took day-to-day control of the Turks and Caicos Islands, voters in the sun-splash tourist haven are heading to the polls Friday to elect a new government.
This is the second time in 24 years that Britain is handing back power to the people in the tiny chain of islands, 575 miles southeast of Miami, after being forced to take over because of widespread government corruption.
“We are indeed looking forward to the restoration of our democracy,” said Dr. Rufus W. Ewing, who as leader of the Progressive National Party is vying to become Premier by returning his party to power. The party was kicked out of office in 2009 when the British took over amid allegations of widespread corruption by party leaders.
“We are confident we are going to be victorious at the polls,” Ewing said.
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In the walkup to Friday’s general election, the British interim government has issued a number of reforms in hopes of reshaping the territory. Among them: a new constitution, redrawn boundaries to better reflect where the islands’ 31, 458 residents live, and a requirement that the government always run a surplus.
“As the Turks and Caicos Islands prepares to vote for its new government they can do so with confidence that they stand before a democratic and better governed future,” British-appointed Governor Ric Todd said Wednesday in a statement. “There are of course many challenges ahead.”
Todd, who has been heavily criticized because of the public reforms and austerity measures, reminded islanders — known as Belongers — of the difficult journey they’ve traveled to get to Friday. Three years ago, the territory was reeling from the effects of widespread government corruption allegations, a global financial crisis and the devastation of Hurricane Ike in 2008.
“Even as the economy grew strongly in the boom years, the country had increased its debt; investors turned away from these shores; and, as we know, there was an increasing absence of confidence in the institutions of the TCI,” Todd said.
Today, the economy is growing by 4.3 percent, investors are inking deals for new resorts and new rules for politicians and civil servants have been enacted. Of the 7, 377 who confirmed Belongers, 7,248 are eligible to cast ballots for 15 seats in the 19-member House of Assembly. There are 37 candidates from three political parties, and two independents running. The party with a majority of 10 seats will control the government for the next four years.
In 1986, Britain suspended direct rule after the chief minister was convicted and jailed in Miami on cocaine-related charges and his replacement was fired by the British-appointed governor. In 2009, Britain was summoned again. But islanders have become increasingly disillusioned with the British who have introduced new taxes, cut government jobs and salaries and launched an $11 million a year corruption probe.
Last week, Todd announced the new elected government could reinstate a 10 percent pay cut to public servants’ salaries as of February 2013 under certain conditions. Both the PNP and the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), which had campaigned on the issue, welcomed the decision.
But one thing that will not change, Todd said, is the ongoing criminal investigation. So far, it has recovered 2,462 acres in government land, and led to the indictment of 13 people including four government ministers on bribery, conspiracy to receive bribes, conspiracy to defraud the Turks and Caicos government and the concealing or transferring of illegally obtained proceeds.
International arrest warrants and Interpol notices also remain outstanding for former Premier Michael Misick and a developer, Kem Cinay.
“There will be no let up in the prosecution of those who have been indicted and of any further accused who may be charged with offenses,” Todd said.