Voters in the oil-rich, twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago cast ballots Monday to decide whether to give Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s ruling coalition government another five-year term or bring back the opposition. Polls stayed open an extra hour after storms hit in the afternoon.
Pollsters and some political observers have said the general election is too tight to call, despite allegations of corruption in the ruling government and dissatisfaction over Persad-Bissessar’s leadership. Since she assumed office in May 2010, 26 government officials either resigned or were dismissed.
“We will not know until the results if it was in fact too close to call,” said Martin G. Daly, a Trinidad and Tobago attorney who writes a political column and blog.
Among the major issues in the elections: corruption, violent crime, education, the economy and falling energy prices. The country is dependent on oil and gas reserves, and the low prices of oil will impact its budget. The next government will have some tough decisions to make, including which state-funded programs to keep and which to end due to the falling oil prices.
Two parties dominated the elections: United National Congress (UNC) led by Persad-Bissessar, and the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Keith Rowley. A third party, the Independent Liberal Party, is led by scandal-scarred ex-FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, who is facing extradition to the United States on corruption charges.
Warner, who was once a major financial supporter of the UNC and is credited with Persad-Bissessar’s political rise, formed his own party two years ago after he was booted from the ruling government amid reports of an FBI probe and corruption allegations involving international soccer. He regained his parliamentary seat in a landslide, and is now running for the Chaguanas East seat in the central region.
Unlike in years past, these elections relied less on mass political rallies, and more on the use of social media, messages to voters’ cellphones, and close-up personal chats between the party leaders and residents in their communities. Campaign songs, embraced by the political parties, also received heavy airplay on local radio.
After heavy rain fell in midafternoon, accompanied by thunder and lightning, elections officials announced that polls in Trinidad would remain open an extra hour until 7 p.m.
Daly said it has been difficult to predict the outcome of the general elections for 41 seats in Parliament because the race has turned into a presidential contest. The ruling partnership has demonized Rowley while painting Persad-Bissessar as a “protective shield over all the erroneous acts and omissions of governance that would have gotten any government thrown out.”
“They are asking voters to forget about all,” he said.
Still voter Nadine Hall, 37, said concerns about crime, the economy and education influenced her decision.
“A lot of those children in the newer secondary schools cannot read or write. We are churning out criminals,” said Hall, who arrived at her polling station at the 6 a.m. start time to cast her ballot.
“We cannot seem to get it right on our own,” Hall said about the fight to combat violent crime in the eastern Caribbean nation.
A deciding factor in some of the hotly contested constituencies will be voters who belong to the Congress of the People (COP) party, which has fallen apart in recent years.
“It’s hard to say what the COP-type of voter will do; whether he or she will fall for Kamla’s seduction or as we say here in Trinidad and Tobago, ‘hold their nose and vote for Rowley.’ It’s hard to tell,” Daly said.
Daly, who voted in the morning, said there appeared to be a steady stream of voters. It took longer to park his car than to vote, he added. That, however, was not an indicator of whether there would be high turnout among the country’s more than one million voters.
A 12-member team from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which Trinidad is a member of, is in the country, where observers observed the vote. The team is headed by Jamaica’s Director of Elections Orette Fisher.
The group was supposed to have monitor voting in at least 20 of the 41 constituencies.