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Turnout Heavy in Trinidad And Tobago Election

Reuters, Monday 11 December 2000, 8:41 PM ET

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (Reuters) - Voters turned out in droves on Monday to elect a new government in Trinidad and Tobago, an oil- and gas-rich republic in the southern Caribbean.

Long lines formed outside polling stations all day as residents took part in an election seen likely to produce a close finish between the two main parties, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's United National Congress and former Prime Minister Patrick Manning's People's National Movement.

"The voting has been very heavy, as we have learned, not only through our own officers, and in some cases very steady without a break," Chief Elections Officer Howard Cayenne said. Seventy-nine candidates contested 36 seats. The polls were open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and tabulation started shortly after the polling stations closed.

Both the UNC and the PNM won 17 seats in parliament in the last general election, in November 1995, in this island nation of 1.3 million people off Venezuela. After that election, the UNC formed a coalition government with the minority National Alliance for Reconstruction, which won two seats.

High Turnout Was Predicted

Political commentators had predicted a turnout as high as 76 percent of the nation's 947,000 eligible voters. In 1995, 63.1 percent of voters cast ballots.

Panday said he was particularly pleased that young people seemed to have turned out in large numbers.

"They are not as cynical as the older folks. They are interested in the politics of the country, and that's good for the country," Panday said after voting.

Panday and Manning traded harsh criticism during a hard-fought campaign marked by charges of electoral corruption.

During the campaign, the PNM alleged that the ruling party had attempted to pad voter rolls with its supporters in toss-up precincts. During investigations of the charges, police searched the offices and homes of a number of UNC members, including Works and Transport Minister Sadiq Baksh.

A poll conducted by St. Augustine Research Associates and published on Friday in the Trinidad Express newspaper found the PNM likely to win 18 seats and the UNC 16, reversing a slight margin for the UNC in a survey two weeks earlier.

But the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, found the UNC still holding a lead among decided voters, 45 percent to 42 percent. The poll found the NAR was likely to retain its two seats.

Race Plays Key Role

Race frequently plays a role in Trinidad politics. The population of about 1.3 million is nearly equally divided between people of African descent, who generally favor the PNM, and Indian descent, who usually vote for the UNC.

Trinidad and Tobago is an economic powerhouse among the small nations of the Caribbean basin, having used rich offshore oil and natural gas reserves to build solid energy and manufacturing industries. But it has been troubled by high crime rates, and like other Caribbean nations, it is anxious not to become a way station for drugs smuggled from Latin America to the United States.

Panday, a British-trained lawyer and union leader, hopes to parlay the economic successes of the last five years into 100,000 new jobs in the next five through increased foreign investment, expansion of exports and increased diversification in service sectors, including tourism.

Manning's PNM also backs a job creation program, primarily through construction of a new industrial park whose goal would be to add 50,000 to 100,000 jobs by 2020.

A six-member Commonwealth observer team headed by former Canadian Cabinet minister Roy MacLaren was monitoring the election.