As Grenada election nears, islanders prefer US troops to their own politicians

On the surface, Grenada is calm. It looks just like a Caribbean island is supposed to look, with green mountains, white beaches, a shimmering harbor, and friendly people.

But, some nine months after the American troops landed on Grenada, uncertainty prevails beneath the island's peaceful appearance.

The main reason is the election expected to take place before the end of the year. Many Grenadians would prefer to see it postponed. They would rather see US troops remain on this island, as one inhabitant put it, ''forever.''

The honeymoon that the Americans have enjoyed with many islanders continues. The ''God Bless America'' slogans that Grenadians painted on their walls in October of last year, after the Americans ousted their leftist rulers, have begun to fade. But no one has tried to erase them.

Some 220 United States troops remain on the island, alongside a handful of helicopter pilots, US Coast Guard men, and military trainers - most of them here simply to provide psychological support and an element of stability. US diplomats say the aim is to withdraw the last of the US troops from the island sometime next year. By then, a new Grenadian police force is supposed to have been trained.

But while they are clear in their welcoming attitude toward the Americans, many Grenadians don't know what to make of their own politics at the moment. Part of their uncertainty derives from a fear that a former prime minister, Sir Eric Gairy, may find a way to return to power.

Sir Eric has often been described as corrupt, brutal, eccentric - even mad. When in power in the 1970s, he became an embarrassment to other east Caribbean leaders. He seemed to have an obsession with unidentified flying objects. In several speeches at the United Nations, Gairy proposed that studies of flying saucers be undertaken. The leftist-led New Jewel Movement ousted Gairy in a coup in March 1979.

After the New Jewel Movement split and the Americans invaded - or as Grenadians say, rescued - the island, Gairy returned. Diplomats say that with his opponents divided, the former prime minister could once again seize power, this time through what seems to be shap-ing up as the island's first free and fair election since independence 10 years ago.

The right-of-center Gairy seems to be the only politician heading into the election who knows precisely what he is doing. Centrist and left-of-center parties are so divided that they have left him an opening. While many of his opponents' supporters might fail to turn out on election day, Gairy can count on his.

Grenadians running the interim government and US diplomats give two reasons for moving swiftly into elections:

1. The interim government leaders feel uncomfortable in their role and want to be replaced as soon as possible.

2. They say foreign investors would be encouraged by a fair, well-conducted vote.

But the fear among some diplomats is that if Gairy comes to power through the candidates he is sponsoring for the 15-member House of Representatives, it would trigger a violent reaction and bring new instability to Grenada.

It is clear that Gairy is disliked by a sizable part of the population on this island of some 80,000 to 90,000 people. According to one estimate, he commands the loyalty of no more than 25 percent of the potential electorate. But a poll taken here at the end of last year and early this year showed a disenchantment with politics that could work in Gairy's favor. He still holds the loyalty of many members of his old agricultural workers' union who could be expected to turn out to support him no matter how disaffected other elements of the population might be.

Not everyone agrees, however, that Gairy's election chances are strong. For one thing, he no longer controls the election machinery. Diplomats say he manipulated the results of the the 1976 election, he manipulated the results. This time, voter registration appears to have been conducted in a careful, orderly manner. There are also signs that the idea of an election has grown to be more widely accepted than it was just shortly after last October's American intervention.

The most prominent person planning to run in opposition to Gairy's Grenada United Labor Party is Herbert Blaize, Grenada's first prime minister, who held office when the island was still under British rule. He lost several earlier elections to Gairy. But one of Mr. Blaize's aides insists that Blaize's Grenada National Party will be able to defeat Gairy's candidates without having to form a coalition with other parties. Blaize has positioned himself as a moderate, centrist candidate between what he describes as the right and left-wing extremes represented by Gairy and the New Jewel Movement.

Two months ago, Blaize formed a ''team for national togetherness'' with two other politicians, including George Brizan, the head of the National Democratic Party (NDP). The new coalition lasted three weeks. Blaize supporters say that Mr. Brizan laid down unacceptable conditions. Some Blaize supporters suspect Brizan of left-wing tendencies. But the NDP charter opposes communism.

''They can't agree on who's going to get what,'' said a diplomat here. ''That's what they're talking about, instead of what's good for Grenada.''

''If they had an election today, Gairy would make a very strong showing,'' said another diplomat here. ''He could even win if the moderates were split. But if Blaize and Brizan got together, there's no way that Gairy could win.''

Gairy's opponents point out that he got a cool reception when he returned to Grenada in January. Gairy claims that his arrival created a ''carnival'' atmosphere on the island. But witnesses say that no more than 400 supporters turned up at an arrival reception organized by Gairy himself.

In an interview at his headquarters, Gairy spoke with confidence and determination. He described his political party as ''the only party of any substance'' and dismissed all of the others as ''just a joke.'' He said Brizan is an ''avowed communist'' and lumped the other politicians together as leftist ''birds of a feather.''

Gairy said his proposals concerning flying saucers reflected only one of his many interests but that his opponents had focused on this subject to discredit him. (He said he had only raised the UFO issue ''three times totally'' at the UN.)

Gairy denied allegations that while in power he had used a ''police auxiliary'' force known as the ''Mongoose Gang'' to beat up and intimidate his opponents.

''If anyone can find one member of the Mongoose Gang, dead or alive, I'll give him half my property,'' said Gairy, who contended that the gang consisted of a handful of ruffians who worked for a mongoose eradication program with the UN World Health Organization.

But the history of the Mongoose Gang has been fairly well documented. A respected panel set up in 1973 produced a report holding Gairy responsible for the ''establishment and control'' of the gang.

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