Election preview: Trinidad & Tobago

The Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago goes to the polls tonight, with the government of prime minister Keith Rowley seeking a second term in office.

Trinidad & Tobago was once a British colony and still retains the classic British electoral system of first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts. Not surprisingly, it is dominated by two major parties: Rowley’s People’s National Movement, which holds 23 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives (there is also an appointed Senate), and the opposition United National Congress, which holds 17 of the remaining 18.

The two parties have alternated peaceably in power for the last 30 years. Both sit towards the centre of the spectrum, with the UNC leaning a little more to the left. The main difference between them is ethnic: the PNM is supported more by those of African heritage (the descendants of former slaves) and the UNC more by those of Indian heritage (the descendants of indentured workers brought in to replace the freed slaves).

Perhaps because each party has a relatively solid base in its own community, the electoral system has not produced badly lopsided results. At the last election, in 2015, the PNM outvoted the UNC by 51.7% to 39.6%; the only other party to make a mark was the Congress of the People, an ally of the UNC, with 6.0% and one seat. Five years earlier, the UNC plus allies had won 59.8% and 29 seats.

There is no sign of anyone else challenging the duopoly this time. Polls show the two parties fairly evenly matched, with perhaps a slight advantage to the government. In local elections last December, however, the UNC held a lead of more than ten points. And as with any district-based system, in a close election it is possible that an overall lead in votes may not yield a majority of seats.

Covid-19 has done rather less damage in Trinidad & Tobago than in much of the region. Eight people have died, all in the early months of the outbreak. But there has been a recent uptick in the number of cases, leading the electoral commission to take steps to try to reduce the risk of transmission to and from voters.

No doubt there will be some reduction in turnout, which usually hovers around the two-thirds mark, although it’s unclear which side might benefit from that. Nor is it clear whether the government will be given credit for its satisfactory handling of the pandemic. As the year has already showed, the relationship between health outcomes and electoral fortunes is far from simple.

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