Ethnic division marks Trinidad and Tobago election
BY DON BOHNING
Trinidad and Tobago, the oil and gas rich, twin-island Caribbean
nation of 1.3
million people off the coast of Venezuela, elects a new government today, ending
yet another campaign dominated by the ethnic political divide between its East
Indian and African communities.
Pre-election polls indicate a tossup between the incumbent Prime
Basdeo Panday's East Indian-based United National Congress (UNC) and former
Prime Minister Patrick Manning's Afro-oriented People's National Party.
In the November 1995 elections, in which Panday became the country's
prime minister of East Indian descent, each party won 17 of the 34 parliamentary
seats in Trinidad. The multi-racial National Alliance for Reconstruction won the
other two parliamentary seats from Tobago, joining with Panday to form a
It could be the NAR again which holds the balance of power, with
contesting only the two Tobago seats.
In making the announcement that the NAR -- which controlled the
government from 1986 to 1991 -- would contest only the two Tobago seats, party
leader Anthony Smart accused the two major parties of inciting racial tensions
that have polarized the country.
``Because the parties contesting the election in Trinidad have
politics to exploit the racial differences of the two groups, we in the NAR expect
gridlock and stalemate as happened in 1995,'' said Smart.
He charged that the other two parties had split the country into
camps and people are voting now strictly on the basis of ethnicity.''
A reflection of that ethnic divide -- with the East Indians and
each representing about 40 percent of the country's population -- came recently in
a defamation suit by newspaper publisher Ken Gordon, an Afro-Trinidadian,
against Panday. A High Court judge last month ordered Panday to pay Gordon
$120,000 for calling him a ``pseudo-racist.''
Otherwise, the platforms of the two major parties are not all
that different, with
emphasis on job creation, education, health, agriculture and promotion of private
enterprise. Panday and Manning, however, come from dramatically different
Panday, 67, emerged politically from the trade union movement,
both law economics degrees in London. By 1973 he had become the leader of the
heavily East Indian All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union, a
position he held until he became prime minister in 1995. He was first elected to
parliament in 1976, the same year he founded the United Labor Front, which
evolved into the United National Congress.
Manning, 54, a geologist by training, was elected to parliament
in 1971 as one of
its youngest members ever. By 1973, he had become a parliamentary secretary
in the office of the late Dr. Eric Williams, who led Trinidad and Tobago to
independence from Britain. Manning eventually became leader of the
parliamentary opposition and then prime minister when the PNM won 1991