The political institutions of Antigua and Barbuda have gone through three basic stages: a period of colonial plantocratic democracy (1623–1868), a phase of colonial authoritarianism (1868–1939), and a period of liberal democracy (1940– present). Since the enactment of universal suffrage in 1951, elections have been contested every five years without major interruptions.
Antigua was first settled by pre-agricultural Amerindians known as "Archaic People", (although they are commonly, but erroneously known in Antigua as Siboney, a preceramic Cuban people). The earliest settlements on the island date to 2900 BC. They were succeeded by ceramic-using agriculturalist Saladoid people who migrated up the island chain from
Venezuela. They were later replaced by Arawakan speakers, and around 1500 by Island Caribs; there was, however, little difference between the two groups.
Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493 naming the larger one Santa Maria de la Antigua. England colonized the islands in 1632. Sir Christopher Codrington established the first large sugar estate in Antigua in 1674, and leased Barbuda to raise provisions for his plantations. Barbuda's only town is named after him. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa's west coast to work the plantations. During the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet. English Dockyard, as it came to be called, a sheltered and well-protected deepwater port, was the main base and facilities there were greatly expanded during the later 18th century. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson commanded the British fleet for much of this time, and made himself unpopular with local merchants by enforcing the British ruling that only British-registered ships could trade with British colonies.
Sugar succeeded tobacco as the chief crop and led to the importation of enslaved Africans to work on the highly profitable estates. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807), the Codringtons established a big ‘slave-farm’ on Barbuda, where children were bred to supply the region’s unpaid labour force, until slaves were emancipated in 1834. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing.
As the only Caribbean island under British rule to possess a good harbour, Antigua was the dockyard for the British West Indies, used by the Royal Navy from 1725 until 1854. In 1871, the island colonies of Antigua (with Barbuda), Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica were joined to form the Federated Leewards Islands Colony; it's seat of administration was St. John's on Antigua.
Demand for self-determination developed in parallel with a concern to create political and economic linkages with other small Caribbean countries. The labour movement became the main focus of political development, and gathered strength during the economically troubled mid-years of the 20th century. Vere C Bird formed the country’s first trade union in 1939, The Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) became the political vehicle for Vere Cornwall Bird, who was elected as the Labour Union's president in 1943.
The Antigua Labour Party (ALP), formed by Vere Bird and other trade unionists, first ran candidates in the 1946 elections and became the majority party in 1951, beginning a long history of electoral victories. .
UNIVERSAL ADULT SUFFRAGE
The first elections under universal adult suffrage took place in 1951, and were won by the ALP. In 1958, the Federated Leeward Islands Colony was dissolved, and Antigua joined the Federation of the West Indies. The Federation was later dissolved in 1962.
The status of Associated Statehood with Britain was first achieved in the Eastern Caribbean islands by Antigua and Barbuda in 1967. It formed a full government while the British would still be responsible for defense and some other aspects of external affairs.
Vere Bird Sr became the first Premier, but the ALP was ousted at the next elections in 1971 by the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), led by George Walters. Both parties had their roots in the labour movement; the main difference at that time was that the PLM was campaigning for early independence, while the ALP wanted stronger economic foundations to be developed first.
INDEPENDENT ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
On 1 November 1981, Antigua and Barbuda was granted full independence. It remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and remains a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Antigua and Barbuda. Antigua and Barbuda joined the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) at its formation in 1981.
The ALP won renewed mandates in the general elections in 1984 and 1989. In the 1989 elections, the ruling ALP won all but two of the 17 seats.
During elections in March 1994 power passed from Vere Bird to his son Lester Bird but remained within the ALP. The ALP won its fifth consecutive election victory, and its third since independence, in March 1994, with a reduced but still substantial majority: 11 of the 17 seats and 54.4% of the votes. Five seats went to the UPP led by Baldwin Spencer, and one to the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM).
The UPP was formed in 1992 through a merger of Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement, the Progressive Labour Movement and the United National Democratic Party. In September 1993, on the retirement of Vere Bird, his son Lester Bird became Prime Minister. In March 1994 the ALP won its fifth consecutive election victory, securing 11 of the 17 seats in the House; the UPP led by Baldwin Spencer took five and the Barbuda People’s Movement one.
The ALP led by Lester Bird won the general election in March 1999 (in the presence of a Commonwealth observer group), gaining 12 of the 17 seats – one more than in 1994 – but with a slightly reduced share of 53% of the popular vote. The UPP took four seats, with 44% of the votes, and the BPM one seat. The extra seat gave the government a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives.
However on 23 March 2004 the United Progressive Party in an historic election brought to an end the 28 year rule of the Antigua Labour Party. This election boasted a more than 90 percent turnout by voters at the polls. The United Progressive Party (UPP) won 12 of the 17 seats in Parliament, including the St. John's Rural East seat which was long held by the former Prime Minister Lester Bird. The main opposition ALP, retained four seats and the BPM it one seat. The UPP won a second consecutive term in 2009.
In 2014, a rebranded Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) led by Gaston Browne, won 14 of 17 seats. The UPP won the remaining three seats. The ABLP won a second consecutive term in the snap election called on 21 March 2018, with 15 of 17 seats. The UPP and the BPM won one seat each.