Coronavirus and corruption focus as Trinidad heads to polls

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Coronavirus and corruption focus as Trinidad heads to polls

Friday, August 07, 2020

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PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (AFP) — Prime Minister Keith Rowley's governing People's National Movement (PNM) party is expected to hold onto power as Trinidad and Tobago citizens head to the polls in Monday's general election.

In the most recent opinion poll in the island nation off Venezuela, the PNM led by five percentage points ahead of the opposition United National Congress (UNC), led by former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

The coronavirus pandemic and corruption have been two key issues on the campaign trail.

The twin-island republic is a first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy modelled on that of former colonial power Britain.

Voters will elect the 41 members of the House of Representatives with the winning party's leader becoming prime minister.

Among the candidates standing for seats is disgraced former FIFA vice president Austin "Jack" Warner, who is still battling extradition to the United States to face charges of racketeering and conspiracy as part of a global graft probe into world football's governing body.

He is one of a record 17 single candidates from separate political parties contesting the polls alongside the two main parties.

All but one of the 41 seats in the 2015 election were won by either the PNM or UNC. The PNM ousted the UNC in 2015 by 23 seats to 17.

Coronavirus cases have been increasing in the build-up to the election, with 67 people testing positive in the last two weeks.

Rowley announced on Wednesday the closure of all primary schools after several pupils were infected.

Health officials have described recent cases as a "sporadic cluster spread" but previously all infections were believed to be imported.

Many blame the new cases on the illegal trafficking of economic migrants from Venezuela. However, no Venezuelan national has been confirmed as positive among the new COVID-19 cases.

Rowley has promised not to re-impose lockdown measures but has said bars and restaurants could be closed to prevent virus spread.

The government has received high praise regionally and internationally for its handling of the pandemic which has helped it enjoy a high approval rating.

But in ethnically-diverse Trinidad and Tobago, politics remains largely divided along racial lines between the two main groups: African and Indian descendants.

The majority of PNM supporters are of African descent with the UNC popular among those of South Asian background.

The UNC won the popular vote among the 1.1 million voters in last year's local government elections, however Persad-Bissessar's campaign has floundered with the restriction on crowds imposed by public health regulations.

The UNC says the economy stalled prior to the pandemic lockdown and blamed poor economic policy.

It has also promised to reverse the restructuring of a key state petroleum industry asset — Petrotrin — which resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

And the UNC intends to scuttle a plan to sell the state refinery to the trade union which represents workers at the plant.

For his part, Rowley highlighted allegations of mismanagement of the state's assets by the UNC while it was in power.

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