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By Neil Hartnell

NASSAU, Bahamas Sept 17, 2021 (Reuters) – Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis late last night, Thursday Sept. 16, conceded defeat in the general elections on the Atlantic island chain reeling from a surge in COVID-19 cases and slump in the tourism-dependent economy due to the pandemic.

Minnis called his challenger Philip Davis to congratulate him and his Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) on winning the poll unofficially by a landslide of 28 seats. The FNM retained just seven seats.

“I offered him my best wishes as his government now faces the continued fight against COVID-19, and the restoration of our economy,” Minnis, the leader of the Free National Movement (FNM) party, said in a statement.

Minnis had been hoping to become the first prime minister in 24 years to win a second five-year term.

But Davis’ PLP gained momentum with a campaign focused on what it termed 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.

“In the morning we will rise as one nation and meet the challenges ahead,” Davis told the media after Minnis conceded. “Thank you for seeing the possibilities of what we can build together for our children and grandchildren.”

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.

Minnis had argued 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 outgoing Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said he was targeting 1 million air arrivals for 2021.

Davis’ PLP now faces 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 at least 74 people and left many others missing.

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, Alistair Bell, Drazen Jorgic and Michael Perry)

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