Voters in Trinidad and Tobago go to the polls today to elect a new Government following allegations of corruption, racism and promises in a campaign severely hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The election here is not the only one in the Caribbean in which the pandemic has played a major role in terms of limiting the campaigns, following on similar polls in Anguilla, Suriname, Guyana, and St Kitts-Nevis.
Political parties have had to be innovative — using virtual meetings to spread their messages, spending excessive funds on radio and television advertisements, and buying air time. In addition, the closures of the borders have presented yet another problem, with Opposition parties claiming that the Government has used the closures to prevent nationals from returning home to vote.
Trinidad and Tobago, where 1,134,136 people are eligible to cast ballots at the estimated 2,200 polling stations, is no exception.
The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) said it has been working with the Ministry of Health, putting in place protocols to govern election day activities, including the wearing of masks inside the polling station.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has urged the population to follow the protocols being outlined by the EBC urging them to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
“There are people who believe that they must put their finger in the wound to believe that there could be pain,” Rowley said in a statement. “If there are people who decide that this is a joke then they must be made to understand that this is not a joke, and it is not a dare and double dare, and it is not machismo — it is common sense,” he said.
The elections are not being observed by regional and international observers after the Government said it wanted all observers to abide by the protocols governing COVID-19 and ensure that they arrive in time in order to observe the 14-day quarantine period.
Chief Elections Officer Fern Narcis-Scope said that, while the EBC is disappointed at the situation, the absence of observers places the EBC more under the spotlight, insisting nonetheless “we are ready to deliver.”
Narcis-Scope, who played a role in observing the disputed elections in Guyana in March, said she understood what international observers bring in terms of the credibility and “the stamp of approval they can put on your elections. We are a little saddened that things did not work out.
“…But, nonetheless, we are ready to deliver and I look back to the feedback from the public, the media, and the political parties as to how they thought we had performed,” she added.
Rowley said he had extended invitations to the Commonwealth and the Caribbean Community to observe the elections, but both indicated that it would have been an expensive venture given that their members would have had to arrive here at least two weeks ahead of the polls.
There are an estimated 146 candidates — representing 19 political parties and four independents — contesting the 41 seats, with the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) the only party fielding candidates in all constituencies.
The main Opposition, United national Congress (UNC), as it has done in previous elections, is not fielding candidates in the sister isle of Tobago, but its leader, Kamla Persad Bissessar, is confident of returning to the corridors of power after she was ousted by Rowley’s PNM in the 2015 General Election.