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Trinidad goes to polls after ‘brutish’ election campaign

/ 09:57 AM September 08, 2015
Kamla Persad-Bissessar

In this Oct. 30, 2011 file photo, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Kamla Persad-Bissessar speaks during a press conference at the end of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia. Persad-Bissessar, the twin-island’s first female prime minister, faces a tough re-election on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015 amid complaints that her government has tolerated corruption and failed to curb violent crime. AP Photo

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago—The people of Trinidad and Tobago voted Monday in elections that had the prime minister battling both the opposition and an upstart splinter party launched by disgraced football honcho Jack Warner.

There was large turnout from the dual island nation’s 1.1 million voters as polling stations opened at 6:00 a.m. (1000 GMT) Monday.

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Voting was extended an extra hour, to 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT) due to thunderstorms, with first results expected at around midnight.

Opinion polls were divided heading into the vote, with some putting the race too close to call and others giving Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her four-party coalition the edge—albeit by a significantly reduced margin.

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Persad-Bissessar’s main challenger is volcanologist Keith Rowley of the People’s National Movement (PNM), the party that has governed the twin-island nation more than any other since independence from Britain in 1964.

But the prime minister is also fighting the potential spoiler effect of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) launched by her one-time ally Warner, a politically powerful lawmaker now battling extradition to the United States after being indicted in the sweeping US probe of allegations of massive corruption at FIFA.

Police reported that a murder in the small constituency of St Joseph was not linked to the elections, but they did confirm searching the office of the government-backed candidate there, acting on a tip, for illegal ballot boxes.

The candidate has filed a complaint against the officers conducting what he described as an illegal search.

During voting, Rowley complained of canvassing by one of the candidates in Persad-Bissessar’s coalition, alleging he sent out text messages calling on constituents to vote for him.

Persad-Bissessar said there is no expressed provision in the law about digital canvassing, but noted that “it has been a tradition that we don’t openly canvass on elections day.”

The candidates also differed in their views of the contentiousness of the campaign.

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After casting his vote this morning, Rowley said he agreed with elections officials that the unusually long campaign was “brutish,” and that he had “never experienced the level of personal attacks” in an election campaign as he had on this one.

Persad-Bissessar disagreed: “I saw the headlines which said most brutish campaign but with greatest of respect, I don’t believe this was brutish. It was a very civilized and democratic campaign, and there may have been over-enthusiastic persons who may have said and done things.”

Warner, 72, swept up in the FIFA scandal that has rocked the world football governing body since it broke in May, is a long-time parliament member. He launched the ILP after Persad-Bissessar sacked him from her cabinet two years ago and has put up 21 candidates for the 41-seat House of Representatives, including himself.

Warner’s party is expected to poach votes mainly from the prime minister’s coalition, the People’s Partnership. And it has concentrated its candidates in districts where a split would favor the PNM.

Persad-Bissessar, a 63-year-old attorney, leads the United National Congress (UNC), a party that grew out of a trade union for sugar plantation workers, mainly of East Indian origin.

The bulk of its support continues to come from the sugar belt areas in central and south Trinidad.

Her coalition also includes the Congress of the People, a UNC splinter that rejoined its coalition to contest the last polls in 2010, and the National Joint Action Committee, an organization that was at the forefront of the islands’ Black Power Movement in the 1970s.

Persad-Bissessar, who has been in office since 2010, continues to enjoy high popularity ratings, but has struggled to fend off corruption allegations, concerns about violent crime and an economic contraction.

Her claims of stabilizing the economy and maintaining growth despite a drop in the islands’ oil and gas revenues were debunked by statistics released three days from the vote indicating the economy contracted by 1.2 percent and unemployment increased to 3.7 percent, with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs in the first quarter of the year.

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TAGS: campaign, Election, Trinidad, vote
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