Same challenges for Trinidad's new government

Trinidad PM Keith Rowley

By Tony Fraser, writing from Port of Spain

There was an audible sigh of relief from the Afro-Trinidad (of African descent) and Tobago and parts of the mixed population - a feeling that a bullet had been dodged with the victory of the People's National Movement (PNM) in 7 September general elections.
From the other side of the political and ethnic divide, those who voted for the Indo-Trinidad (of Indian descent) dominated United National Congress (UNC) and its partners in the People's Partnership (PP), there has been deep anguish.
They simply did not believe, perhaps could not allow themselves to believe that they could lose power.
They did: 18 seats to 23 by the PNM.
Social media challenges
In the week after, the anguish spilled over on social media, with serious ethnic slurs against Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians from UNC supporters.
Their leader, former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, called on the perpetrators to jettison all racial comments.
Prakash Ramadhar, the leader of the Congress of the Party (COP), the UNC’s coalition partner, hinted at the dangers of the new tactics.
He said in a press release: “In the social media and in small groups throughout the country, some seek to abuse the freedom of expression which we enjoy by promoting and growing overt racism, which is expressed in crude and violent terms.
“This is not acceptable in a truly democratic and united society, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural,” he warned.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar announced her defeat by saying that she had become “citizen Kamla”. But at the same time, she maintained that while the PNM had won the most seats, her UNC/PP coalition had captured the popular vote.
One day later, she said that she was filing an election petition to have the vote nullified. Her reason: the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) had extended the time of voting in Trinidad by one hour.
The EBC had granted the extension saying that heavy rains during the day on the island of Trinidad had prevented many from casting their vote.
To substantiate her petition, the former prime minister says she was reliably informed that her party was leading up to when polls had been set to close and had only lost because of the extension of time by the EBC.
Political commentary
The claim led one political commentator, Dr Winford James, to say the outgoing prime minister must have mystic powers to know that her party had been ahead in the vote before ballots were even counted.
Dr James’ assessment was in true Trinidad picong style: "She must be ah obeah man."
The EBC’s response to Mrs Persad-Bissessar was that it had “unfettered constitutional right to management the election without reference to anyone”.
The final electoral report by the Commission indicates that the PNM not only won the majority of seats (23), but won the popular vote against the UNC by approximately 100,000 votes.  
Even when the votes of all four parties were counted together, the PNM still won the popular vote by approximately 40,000 votes.
Moreover, the PNM made serious incursions into traditional UNC constituencies, winning a few of those constituencies and reducing the gap to a few hundred votes in others. 
A clear example of the swing to the PNM could be found in the east/west corridor Barataria/San Juan constituency. 
It is a seat that has been won over the last three elections by the UNC by several thousands of votes and, in 2010, by 560 votes. This time around, according to the EBC's final results, the PNM won 48.31% of the vote while the UNC took 51.49% of the vote.  
Spending v issues
What is clear is that the UNC-PP government, which won by a landslide (29 to 12) in 2010, had depended heavily for re-election on a widespread programme of infrastructure projects.
These had included spending on roads, bridges, schools and a social welfare programme aimed at the economic underclass.
The 2014 budget, seen by many as an early start to the 2015 election campaign, had been the twin-island republic’s biggest ever.
And that is judged against the republic’s increasing oil and natural gas income over the years.
Corruption allegations
But against this budgetary backdrop, Mrs Persad-Bissessar had been forced to cope with an avalanche of corruption allegations and the firing of a number of her ministers.
These had started early, with the case of the high-profile former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner, and continued with the departures of various other cabinet members.
It was a case of the electorate saying it "could not live by bread alone".
On the other side, opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley and his PNM ran an issue-led campaign, making a number of allegations against the UNC/PP that stuck in the public psyche.
Here’s the hard part
The apparent swing to the PNM is now the start of a difficult leadership path for Dr Rowley as he takes on the mantle of prime minister.
A 65-year-old geologist, Dr Rowley has had 29 years of parliamentary experience as senator, government minister and opposition leader.
His first task, the assembling of his cabinet, took place within days of the election with a measure of popular success.
He focused heavily on the relatively young candidates, giving them big ministries including attorney-general and the ministry of energy.
He also surprised the electorate with the appointment of a non-economist, Colm Imbert - an experienced minister, but an engineer by profession - as finance minister.
"The economists are the ones who have got us into trouble, maybe it takes someone else to get us out," Dr Rowley told reporters.
Financial challenges
The new PNM administration faces the dual problems of a climbing national debt and a decline in foreign exchange reserves.
Trinidad and Tobago is dependent on natural gas and crude oil for its foreign exchange earnings and more than 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
With international oil prices crashing over the last year from a high of US$120 a barrel, the signs are clear.
Also, the price of liquefied natural gas imports from Trinidad to the US fell from US$11.80 per 1,000 cubic feet in July 2014 to US$6.24 in June 2015. 
According to Trinidad and Tobago’s energy ministry, the sector accounts for about 45% of the country’s GDP and is still a core driver of the economy.
There are going to be serious difficulties up ahead. Trinidad and Tobago has notched up an average annual TT$5bn deficit over the last five years.
Dr Rowley has acknowledged the problems. But he says there is "enough for all, perhaps not for lavish lifestyles, but there is enough".
He has promised to be the prime minister for all of Trinidad and Tobago, urging that those who voted for the UNC and PP should have no fear of reprisals.
Opposition’s “18 warriors”
The new opposition has not signalled any intention of making it easy for him.
One potential chief whip for the opposition, Dr Roodall Moonilal, has said: "We shall have 18 warriors in the House."
Prakash Ramadhar, leader of the minority COP, with only his seat in the House of Representatives, has said support will go to the government, if it deserves it.
The PNM has been in government for 43 of the 59 years of representative independent government in Trinidad and Tobago.
But it will take all of the party's skills and experience as Dr Rowley seeks to get the country out of its hole.
He has reminded the population that the country entered into an International Monetary Fund (IMF) balance of payments programme in 1988, under a government of the National Alliance for Reconstruction, and that it was the PNM that led the country out of those difficulties.
In reality, it was the escalation in gas and oil prices following the Gulf War that did the trick.
It could be that under this new but familiar ruling party, Trinidad and Tobago might find that it cannot continue to depend on its oil and gas fix.
Tony Fraser is a veteran journalist and columnist based in Trinidad. 
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