PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos (AP) -- The Turks and Caicos Islands prepared to govern itself for the first time in three years as the British territory voted Friday for a new government.
The election marked the end of Britain's three-year direct rule over the territory following an inquiry into rampant corruption that led to the 2009 resignation of former jet-setting Premier Michael Misick. He had angered many with his lavish lifestyle that included two private jets on call and a Hollywood actress wife, but islanders in recent years began demanding that Britain give back the reins to a local government.
"It is good to know that we are returning to controlling our own affairs," said 21-year-old hotel waiter Rico Forbes. "Today would be the day. I am really thankful."
He was among dozens of voters trickling into polling stations to choose a premier and 15 legislators for Parliament.
Among the 37 candidates running for office is Dr. Rufus Ewing of the Progressive National Party, who is seeking to become the island's premier. He's running against former Premier Oswald Skippings of the People's Democratic Movement.
William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said he believes the Turks and Caicos Islands has a solid enough foundation to return to an elected government.
"This is a significant step," he said. "(The election) heralds the islands' return to a democratic government."
Britain took control of the territory in August 2009 following a corruption inquiry that uncovered Misick's lavish spending after taking office in 2003. Misick has denied any wrongdoing and remains a fugitive. He's believed to be living in the Dominican Republic. At least 13 people had been charged with corruption, and British investigators recovered about $12 million in assets and 900 acres of land.
In 2011, the Turks and Caicos Islands received a $417 million bailout from the U.K., and the government is currently operating on a budget that Britain hopes will lead to a $20 million surplus next year. The island had a $26 million deficit this past fiscal year, which Britain said was an improvement from the $70 million deficit the previous year.
On Thursday, the island's first auditor general was appointed to lead the newly formed audit office. However, Britain will retain significant control over the island's public finances, a reality that still bothers many.
"I feel elated that the country is going back to local rule, but at the same time it is a bittersweet feeling because we are still in the shackles of the British government, " said Derek Hall, a 38-year-old hotel worker. "Even though they said that we are free to conduct our own affairs, we will still have people breathing down our necks."
To help prepare for the transition, the islands' British governor appointed five permanent secretaries in January to help reform the island's public sector. They were ordered to focus on education, health, infrastructure and the economy.
About 31,000 people live in the islands, which are located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Florida.