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Trinidad and Tobago ushers in new prime minister, government

Keith Rowley, Trinidad’s prime minister-elect, gives his acceptance speech after winning Monday’s general elections.
Keith Rowley, Trinidad’s prime minister-elect, gives his acceptance speech after winning Monday’s general elections. People’s National Movement

Five years after losing power to a coalition partnership that brought Trinidad and Tobago its first female prime minister, the People’s National Movement has returned to office in the oil-rich, twin-island nation.

But Trinidadians shouldn’t expect smooth sailing, the country’s prime minister-elect, Keith Rowley, warned after his PNM won 23 of 41 legislative seats in Monday’s general elections.

“These are not the times of milk and honey,” said Rowley, 65, who is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday as prime minister. “There are difficult times ahead. … But if we navigate them successfully, there is calm water ahead.”

Still, some say other Caribbean governments facing tough economic times, such as Jamaica and Barbados, should take note of the leadership changes cascading across the region.

“They absolutely should be worried given the economics that are in play and the kind of stringent measures they have taken,” said Indera Sagewan-Alli, a political and economy analyst at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine in Trinidad.

Pollsters had said the election in Trinidad was too close to call. But political analysts say in the end, several factors led to the defeat of the ruling People’s Partnership and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who became the eastern Caribbean nation’s first female prime minister in 2010. For one, they say, the PNM ran a more strategic campaign than the Partnership, which turned the contest into a U.S.-based type presidential election that focused on social media, character assassination and populism.

“It was about Kamla’s plan and people then started to ask the important questions, like where is the team that supports Kamla?” Sagewan-Alli said. “They also tended to take a critical look at the last five years and the missteps that occurred and decided they must now assign blame to her.”

By the end of the night, Persad-Bissessar’s splintering Partnership became the third ruling government in the Caribbean to lose power in the last seven months. But unlike the ousted leaders of St. Kitts and Nevis and Guyana, who refused to leave office quietly, Persad-Bissessar gave her concession speech at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday inside her constituency office.

“They have chosen and I respect their wishes,” she said of the country’s more than 1 million registered voters. “I am very happy to be citizen Kamla, MP for Siparia all over again.”

Another loser in the elections was disgraced politician and ex-FIFA Vice President Jack Warner. At the center of a U.S. bribery scandal involving world soccer and the subject of U.S. extradition, Warner had sought to remain in parliament. On the campaign trail, Warner asked voters to return him to parliament, and for Persad-Bissessar’s defeat.

“This is probably the dirtiest campaign I have seen in terms of the character assassination that went on,” said Anthony Bryan, senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations at UWI.

Instead of focusing on the major issues of crime and violence and mismanagement of the economy, for example, the campaign became about the leaders.

“The government of the day rested on what it thought was its laurels and I don’t think members really detected the extent of the public’s displeasure with them,” Bryan said. “They tended to hear things from their base, and ignored what the population at large was saying.”

In the end, undecided voters and those in swing or marginal constituencies rejected the personality contest and focused on the issues. They also broke tradition by crossing ethnic and racial lines similar to Guyanese voters in May, who elected a multi-racial party coalition.

“There were sufficient number of people in the middle who switched their allegiances based on how they perceived the issues,” said Martin G. Daly, a prominent lawyer and political columnist. “I’m satisfied that purely ethnic voting now has been sufficiently diluted by the presence of voters in marginal constituencies.”

In his acceptance speech, Rowley called on the country’s 1.3 million population to join him in helping lift the country out of its economic mess.

While his success will depend on the makeup of his cabinet, observers say, Rowley also will need the support of the opposition to make good on some key campaign promises, such as reforming local government and whistle-blower protection legislation.

But his biggest challenge, along with the perennial problems of crime and drug trafficking, remains the economy. Sixty percent of the country’s revenues come from oil and gas, while more than half of its expenditures go to transfers and subsidies to the population, Sagewan-Alli said.

“Our revenue stream has fallen by at least one-third,” Sagewan-Alli said. “The next government really has a significant challenge ahead, especially if low prices of oil and gas remain protracted for a few years.”

Herald special correspondent Jewel Fraser contributed to this report.

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