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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 November 2007, 14:31 GMT
Oil adds fuel to Trinidad election
By Tony Fraser
Port of Spain

Trinidad and Tobago's general election, which is taking place on Monday, is primarily a contest for cultural and political supremacy between and among parties that have support bases in an electorate divided between people of Indian and African descent.

Refinery of state-owned Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago  in Pointe-a-Pierre
Oil, gas and petro-chemicals are key for Trinidad's economy
But rising crude oil prices worldwide are having big effect on Trinidad and Tobago whose core exports are liquefied natural gas and a range of petro-chemical products.

With the budget set to be an unprecedented $8bn (3.87bn) a year for the next five years, the election battle is also to see which of the three main parties in the former British colony will gain control of the purse strings.

"What it means is that the country has enhanced revenues and you have to be very careful in whose hands you put that," was Prime Minister Patrick Manning's way of urging the 980,000 eligible voters to give his 51-year old People's National Movement (PNM) another five-year stint in office.

Traditional voters

But the leader of the main opposition United National Congress Alliance (UNC) , Basdeo Panday, told his supporters that the country "cannot survive another five years of PNM corruption and gross mismanagement and discrimination against you".

Winston Dookeran, head of the Congress of the People (COP), a breakaway faction of the UNC, said the government was "in a state of pre-collapse".

The PNM is depending in large measure on winning most of the votes of the 40% of the population of African descent.

The UNC Alliance has its main support base amongst the 41% that is descended from India. But it is fighting to stave off an attempt by the COP, which is seen as Trinidad's third force, to steal a large chunk of its traditional voters.

Split vote

Mr Panday has accused the major Hindu organisation, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, of attempting to get its pundits and teachers to urge Hindus to vote en masse for the COP.

UNC rally in Trinidad. Photo by Max Ottley
The UNC and the COP are battling for the votes of Indo-Trinidadians
Mr Panday, who was prime minister from 1995 to 2001 and the first Indo-Trinidadian to hold the office, says his party has 16 to 17 seats where Indo-Trinidadians predominate "in the bag".

But he is clearly concerned that the COP could split the vote and so harm his party's chance of securing a majority in parliament.

"The Corpse," Mr Panday said dismissively of the COP, "cannot win a seat and has no chance of winning the elections."

But he warned the UNC's Indo-Trinidadian core base that they could split UNC votes in the marginals "which are decided by 150 to 300 votes between us and the PNM".

Such comments have provoked a strong reaction from Mr Dookeran. "My friends, have you ever heard a party going up for election and saying 'I want to win the opposition?' And they are saying that we are stopping them. "

I am not making predictions. Those who make predictions from crystal balls sometimes have to eat the glass
Patrick Manning

Mr Dookeran, an economist and former governor of the Central Bank, called for "new politics" to move away from tribal affiliation as he attacked the other two main parties.

"The doors of this party are open to all races, but the PNM leader cannot claim that. If he opens the doors too wide he gets a revolt inside," Mr Dookeran said.

"And the UNC leader, or leaders, cannot even think about that because they themselves do not know what to do to (serve) Trinidad and Tobago."


The incumbent prime minister, 61-year old Mr Manning, a geologist by training, has had two stints as prime minister, from 1991 to 1995 and 2001 to 2007.

His government has attracted more than $7bn in investment in the energy sector, and encouraged local industry and financial services to grow around it.

A rally of PNM supporters on 6 October - photo via PNM's advertising company
The PNM is depending on the votes of African descended voters
The Central Bank says annual GDP growth has averaged 8% over the last five years.

"Whatever number of seats the electorate gives us, we'll work with, but I am not making predictions. Those who make predictions from crystal balls sometimes have to eat the glass," Mr Manning said.

All three parties have put forward proposals to diversify the economy from its present dependence on the oil, natural gas and petrochemical sector, and to expand the manufacturing, tourism and to tackle a wave of violent crime that has taken hold during the last 10 years.

The ruling PNM is proposing the construction in partnership with foreign investors of three smelter plants using the country's natural gas as a cheap source of fuel.

The UNC Alliance says it will heed environmental concerns and not build smelters; the COP is silent on the issue.

Country profile: Trinidad and Tobago
11 May 07 |  Country profiles

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