Trinidad Election is No Carnival

'Calypso and Chutney' politics in this affluent Caribbean nation could put a woman prime minister in power.

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In a place as fond of a good time as Trinidad and Tobago, it’s no surprise that much of its election on Monday is being fought through calypso and chutney, creolized up-tempo Indian rhythms. On the airwaves and political platforms, these musical manifestos truncate the issues in catchy choruses for the party faithful and others who go to the polls in what some predict could be a very close contest. "Right now it is difficult to say what will happen," says political scientist and analyst Selwyn Ryan. "The outcome will depend on what happens in two or three marginal constituencies that are too close to call."

Two and a half years before elections would have been required, Prime Minister Patrick Manning is asking the electorate of these energy-rich southernmost Caribbean islands to refresh his mandate. He believes his People’s National Movement deserves re-election for its robust social programs for the poor and seniors, microloans, free education from pre-school to PhD, and the building of an infrastructure to modernize the country.

The twin-island nation off the coast of Venezuela had a per capita GDP of $23,300 in 2009 (well above the average in Latin America), based on oil and gas. GDP grew for 16 consecutive years through 2008. The population is evenly divided between black descendents of Africans and descendents of Indian indentured workers.

Race has been a factor in elections since the islands gained independence from Britain in 1962, with the PNM being overwhelmingly black and the UNC mostly Indian. The antagonisms may be lower this time, given the broad spectrum that has coalesced around Manning’s opponent Kamla Persad-Bissessar. An Indian, she is a charming and charismatic leader who has stirred the nation. She was the country's attorney general when her United National Congress was in power, and is now its political leader and head of an unlikely coalition of parties called the People’s Partnership that is asking voters to throw Manning out.

An election like this elsewhere might have produced a yawn. But the complex melodrama that passes for politics in the land of the steel drum doesn’t allow such disinterest. Rum and roti politics, Trinidad’s brand of careless election promises, is packed with twists and turns tied to some very colorful characters in this twin-island nation of 1.3 million.

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