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Mood signals ‘change’ in Trinidad and Tobago

Rickey Singh

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TODAY, Trinidadians go to the polls. According to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) over one million voters are eligible to cast their ballots today – 1 040 001 to be precise. Back in November 2007, leading regional newspapers had boldly displayed headlines in their respective editions of what was widely expected for that election – a return to power of the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM).Tomorrow’s headlines however, are expected to be different.The 2007 headlines were based on reportings of the then general election which was being treated by the incumbent PNM and contesting opposition parties as “the mother of all elections”.Well, for tomorrow’s snap general election people in and out of Trinidad and Tobago, who have been following some three weeks of intense campaigning, seem set to expect the opposite – a change in government in Port-of-SpainIn the absence of traditional forecasts by reputable public opinion pollsters at the time of writing, the signals emerging from very fierce campaigning, at times with ominous threats to security arrangements, now point to the real likelihood of headlines reading “PNM loses government”.Not since 1986, when the PNM was almost wiped out of Parliamentin a crushing 33-3 defeat by the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), has Manning’s political opponents been so confident of victory. In 2007, they were divided; now they are together, united under the ‘big tent’ of a “People’s Partnership coalition for change” under the leadership of a woman – former Attorney General, Kamla Persad-Bissessar – who excites passions about becoming the country’s first female Prime Minister.Compelled by dramatic disclosures of public corruption and growing discontent over declining basic social services, Manning had announced tomorrow’s election even before his administration reached halfway into its five-year term. The PNM had secured its November 5, 2007 mandate with a landslide 26-15 victory for control of the 41-seat House of Representatives. And, as the countdown for campaign 2010 was coming to an end, Manning was still doing his best to remain optimistic over control of the reins of state power. However, the “time for change” vibes just this past week would have mocked the PNM leader’s boast that the woman who wants his job as Head of Government “might win a Miss Amity competition but would fail in her attempt to become Prime Minister . . . .”Bubbling with confidence in a climate of so-called “Kamlamania” frenzy, according to reports in the media there, Persad-Bissessar, also a former Minister of Education, has brushed aside Manning’s caricature of her as a Prime Minister.Exuding confidence, she has made the bold prediction that the “People’s Partnership” she leads, was heading for “outright victory” with at least 21 and possibly 25 seats when polling divisions close tomorrow.Perhaps the most disturbing assessment of the likely results of tomorrow’s election for Manning is that which has come from Keith Rowley, the MP he had fired in 2008 from his cabinet over strong claims of deep corruption in the state-run Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDECOTT).Rowley, sensing possible defeat of the PNM, has been urging party supporters to “vote PNM” and not to be too caught up with the opposition’s campaign for change that has been focused on poor and controversial leadership by Manning.Viewed as a likely successor to Manning should the PNM lose the government tomorrow, Rowley has stated from a campaign platform, that he was “a PNM sailor on the PNM ship . . .And it does not matter what shape the ship is in. when you go into battle that is no time to throw the captain overboard . . . .”Victory over the PNM by the ‘People’s Partnership’ coaltion offers the promise of a qualitative change in the political culture of Trinidad and Tobago. But such a hope had surfaced at previous elections following the first won by the PNM back in 1956 that was to result in significant changes over the years, though without any serious bridging of the old racial divide.An estimated third of the country’s registered voters have traditionally boycotted national elections and with the exception of three since 1956, the PNM has always been the victor.At the 2007 election, the registered voters totalled 990 465 and there was a turn out of 66 per cent to return the PNM to power with 26 of the 41 seats.  The combined UNC/COP votes were six per cent more than the PNM’s and there are suggestions that with the united opposition it now faces for tomorrow’s election, the PNM could suffer losses even in some of its traditional constituencies as a consequence of disillusioned supporters staying away from voting.    A high voter response is expected, to judge from the percentages of votes already cast by special categories of electors who had to vote ahead of tomorrow’s 12-hour long polling.By tomorrow we will all know if our predicitions were correct.