By Neil Hartnell
NASSAU (Reuters) - Bahamians voted on Monday in national elections as Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham seeks to keep the ruling party in power in this sparsely populated island chain dependent on tourism and offshore banking.
Political analysts predict a close race between the country's two longtime leading parties, the governing Free National Movement (FNM) and the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in a vote focused on the economy, crime and oil.
Ingraham, who heads the FNM, hopes to win a fourth term in office and overcome opposition criticism that his party has not done enough to stimulate the Bahamian economy, which has seen a sluggish recovery from the global financial crisis.
A scattered archipelago of 700 islands stretching from just off eastern Florida to near Cuba, the Bahamas is one of the most prosperous countries in the Atlantic-Caribbean region. It is home to about 350,000 people.
Voters in the former British colony are choosing 41 representatives to serve in the House of Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The new House members nominate 16 senators.
The opposition PLP is led by Perry Christie, a former prime minister who served from 2002 to 2007.
Christie wants to return the PLP to power after it was ousted five years ago amid several scandals, including claims immigration officials expedited a residency permit for the late Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith.
The incident proved to be a political embarrassment for the PLP and led to the resignation of the immigration minister at the time.
A third political party is expected to field candidates in each of the country's 38 constituencies. Analysts say the DNA could influence Monday's vote by pulling crucial votes away from the two bigger parties. The DNA is headed by a former immigration minister who served under Ingraham and resigned in 2010 complaining about government policy.
Economic, crime and oil issues have largely dominated the campaign. The International Monetary Fund predicts the Bahamian economy will grow 2.5 percent this year after expanding about 2 percent in 2011 while unemployment stands at 14.7 percent.
The campaign also was marked by posturing from the two major parties over offshore oil exploration, which analysts expect to continue.
Analysts say there could be 1 billion barrels of oil reserves in Bahamian waters, offering an opportunity for economic growth.
Ingraham, who also served as prime minister from 1992 to 2002, initially vowed he would not approve any drilling for oil if re-elected but later said he would approve it once the appropriate regulatory procedures were put in place.
He also has sought to cast Christie's party as being closely tied to the Bahamas Petroleum Company, which holds five licenses to explore for oil in the Bahamas.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Bill Trott)