Long-ruling PNM returns to power in Trinidad and Tobago


What does Trinidad and Tobago have in common with Alberta?

In elections in both places, voters are punishing governments for tanking oil prices, a global trend that Alberta’s 44-year-long Tory government was no less powerless to halt than prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first female leader of the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her party, the United National Congress (UNC), lost its bid for reelection after parliamentary elections on the dual-island state on September 7.

Instead, the People’s National Movement (PNM), the party that has controlled government in the Caribbean nation for all but 16 years since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, will return to power. The country’s new prime minister, Keith Rowley (pictured above), is a 65-year-old geologist who served in the House of Representatives in 1991 and has held several ministerial portfolios, including agriculture, housing, and trade and industry. Though Manley comes from the same generation as Patrick Manning, who served as prime minister from 1991 to 1995 and, for the second time, from 2001 to 2010, Manning fired Rowley from the cabinet in 2008 for ‘hooligan behaviour.’

Like many countries in the Caribbean, the years since the global financial crisis of 2008-09 have been met with sluggish economic growth, rising unemployment in the face of already-high joblessness and rising public debt levels. Since 2010, Trinidadian debt has nearly doubled from around 26% to just over 50%. Nearly one-third of its exports come from natural gas and, together with petroleum, energy accounts for 60% of the country’s exports. So falling prices for both commodities are already taxing what had been tepid growth during Persad-Bissessar’s term in office. Rowley inherits the thankless task of cutting the country’s budget in the two months ahead at a time when oil prices show now signs of improvement.

Combined with the Alberta precedent, Trinidad’s election matters as another data piece suggesting that incumbents in states with energy-dependent economies are in trouble — a foreboding thought for Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper and for ruling classes in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Venezuela who face elections later in 2015.

With 1.35 million residents, the country (perched just off the coast of Venezuela) is the fifth-most populous in the Caribbean — after Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Aside from the sputtering economy, the campaign focused on crime, corruption and social issues.

As in nearby Guyana, which also features a population divided by Guyanese of African descent and Indian descent, politics splits on ethnic lines in Trinidad and Tobago, too. Africans typically support the PNM and Indians usually back the outgoing UNC of Persad-Bissessar and her predecessor, the party’s founder, Basdeo Panday. In Guyana, too, an African-Guyanese coalition took power after elections earlier this year in May.

The PNM will hold 23 seats in the 41-member House of Representatives (39 of which are elected in Trinidad, with just two elected from the sleepier Tobago), while the UNC and its allies will hold just 19.

One gadfly who will not return to the parliament is Jack Warner, whose newfound Independent Liberal Party won no seats. Warner is currently being sought for extradition by the United States in connection with his role in the corruption scandal involving FIFA, the global soccer governing federation. Warner, a longtime member of FIFA’s executive committee and a former FIFIA vice president, was deselected by the UNC in the aftermath of the FIFA misconduct scandal. But he previously served as minister of national security in Persad-Bissessar’s first three years in office, and his international fall was a bruising moment for the UNC government.

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