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Trinidad and Tobago Voters Prepare for Another General Election


For the third time in as many years, voters go to the polls in Trinidad and Tobago on Monday to choose a new government. Trinidadians are facing yet another general election, because the results of the last two were inconclusive. At stake are 36 parliamentary seats contested by 100 candidates.

Over the years, voting in Trinidad has been along racial lines. Forty-one percent of the population is of East Indian descent, largely supporting the UNC, the United National Congress. The PNM, People's National Movement, is generally backed by Trinidadians of African descent, who make up 40 percent of the population.

Over the weekend, the two major parties wound up their campaigns with massive rallies. Prime Minister Patrick Manning, leader of the PNM, urged uncommitted voters to go out and cast ballots for his party. He told a gathering of largely-black supporters, his party is the party for all the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Addressing thousands at a competing rally, former prime minister Basdeo Panday, who heads the UNC, expressed confidence his party will be swept back to office. Mr. Panday, who was the country's first leader of Indian descent, said one of his main priorities, will be constitutional reform.

In an interview, the 69-year-old lawyer said he was certain the UNC will win 20 seats. "The only way the PNM can win," he declared, "is if it terrorizes and prevents constituents from voting on polling day."

While Mr. Manning who is 57, is also optimistic about the results, he would only say: "There is a swing to the PNM and we are going to win."

The latest published public opinion polls say the election is too close to call. However, over the past two weeks, other surveys have indicated the PNM was ahead in popularity and heading for victory.

The last election, on December 10 last year, produced an 18-18 tie between the PNM and UNC, deadlocking parliament and triggering a constitutional crisis, that left investors nervous and created instability.

Two weeks later, President Arthur Robinson appointed Mr. Manning prime minister instead of of Mr. Panday, who had held the post for six years, beginning in 1995.

Two major issues, corruption in government and the spiraling crime rate, have dominated the five-week election campaign, which has been relatively incident-free.

In this oil and gas rich two-island country, 40 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. But Prime Minister Manning has predicted that with recent natural gas discoveries, Trinidad and Tobago is on the verge of a new wave of prosperity.

According to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), everything is in place for the general elections and the stage is set for free and fair voting. Some 875,000 people are eligible to vote at over 1,700 polling stations.

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