Barbados to elect new leader after a close and brief campaign

* Opinion poll predicts opposition upset on Caribbean island

* Main party leaders likened to Tweedledee and Tweedledum

By Robert Edison Sandiford

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Voters in Barbados will cast ballots on Thursday in a close but low key race between the ruling Democratic Labour Party led by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and the opposition Barbados Labour Party led by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur.

Thirty seats in Parliament are at stake in the general election in the southeast Caribbean nation of 290,000 people, with the leader of the winning party becoming prime minister.

Polling released on Monday by the Caribbean Development Research Services Inc, or CADRES, gave a slight margin in favor of the opposition Barbados Labour Party, or BLP, both in terms of seats and in popular support.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they favored Arthur, who was prime minister from 1994 to 2008, while 32 percent supported the incumbent Stuart. The poll predicted the BLP could win 17 to 20 parliamentary seats, with the ruling Democratic Labour Party, or DLP, taking 10 to 13 seats.

There are 68 candidates in all, counting independents and those running for the fledgling Bajan Free Party.

Elections were called three weeks ago and there have been no televised debates between the leaders of the two main parties. The short campaign period and lack of national discussion have left many Barbadians with a sense that the issues most pressing to them have yet to be addressed.

"The food prices, some of them are quite ridiculous," said Renee Holder, a 32-year-old accounts clerk and single mother.

The cost of living was former Prime Minister David Thompson's main concern when he and the DLP came to power in 2008. Thompson died of pancreatic cancer in office in 2010 and Stuart, his deputy, succeeded him.

Although viewed as a smart and savvy politician by many, Stuart has had difficulty stabilizing a shaky economy that has suffered credit rating downgrades by Standard & Poors and Moody's in the last seven months.

Popular social commentator and author Peter Laurie has likened the contest to "a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Neither party leader has shown a compelling vision of the future, or a sense of urgency in carving out a profitable niche for Barbados in a rapidly changing global economy, he wrote in his Feb. 10 column for the Nation newspaper.

Holder is sympathetic to the DLP and blamed the country's woes on the weak global economy.

"If outside ain't doing too good, we ain't gonna do too good," she said. But she said she hasn't seen her DLP representative in more than nine years, and she saw the BLP's candidate once, most likely because "he's now looking for votes."

The economy is also the biggest issue for Esther Phillips, a columnist, poet and retired college teacher, who described a recent conversation with a 24-year-old plumber who planned to vote BLP.

"He said that under the BLP, the merchants tend to spend more. Under the DLP, they spend less. It would appear the more moneyed classes are more comfortable with the BLP," Phillips said.

The BLP is considered conservative and pro-business, whereas the DLP is considered to be more mindful of working-class and middle-class needs. Both parties promise to keep more money in voters' pockets but have not said how they would do that.

Stuart has been accused of thinking twice and doing nothing on matters important to his countrymen.

"He's slow, too deliberative," said veteran journalist and calypsonian Peter "Adonijah" Alleyne.

Arthur was accused during his last administration of selling off assets to foreign investors and, Alleyne said, "A lot of people don't trust Arthur. They feel he would just sell off more and more of Barbados."

Arthur's party has called for the privatization of some public entities, such as transportation, sanitation and the water authority. The response has been confused and generally negative, causing the BLP to downplay its position on the issue.

"Privatization means workers going home," said Alleyne. (Editing by Jane Sutton and David Adams in Miami and Grant McCool in New York)