Economic issues dominate as Barbadians go to polls

By Robert Sandiford

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Feb 21 (Reuters) - With the state of the economy foremost on their minds, Barbadians lined up early to vote in general elections on Thursday morning.

Following a night of loud, last-minute campaigning by the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the challenging Barbados Labour Party (BLP), polling stations opened quietly.

Political campaigning is banned at polling stations in the southeast Caribbean nation of 290,000 people, as are all electronic communication devices, including cell phones and cameras.

Many voters started to line up in the predawn hours, and businesses either opened late or were allowing workers to leave earlier to vote.

Thirty seats in Parliament are at stake, 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 BLP, both in terms of seats and in popular support.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they favored opposition leader Owen Arthur, 63, of the BLP, who was prime minister from 1994 to 2008, while 32 percent supported DLP incumbent Freundel Stuart, 61. The poll predicted the BLP could win 17 to 20 parliamentary seats, with the ruling DLP, taking 10 to 13 seats.

There are 68 candidates in all, counting independents and those running for the fledgling Bajan Free Party, and some 234,000 eligible voters.

Elections were called three weeks ago and there have been no televised debates between the leaders of the two main parties.

Stuart has had difficulty stabilizing a shaky economy that has suffered credit rating downgrades by Standard & Poors and Moody's Investors Service in the last seven months.

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.

Election results are expected by late Thursday evening. (Editing by David Adams, Jane Sutton and Eric Walsh)