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Parties Tied in Trinidad Elections

December 11, 2001

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PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) _ Trinidad’s first prime minister of East Indian descent and the black-dominated opposition were locked in a tie Tuesday after elections _ a dramatic twist that has sparked a constitutional crisis and set the stage for a lengthy political battle.

With nearly all votes from Monday’s elections counted, preliminary results indicated that Prime Minister Basdeo Panday’s ruling United National Congress and the People’s National Movement of former Prime Minister Patrick Manning had each won 18 seats in the 36-seat Parliament.

Official results, including those of one disputed district, were expected later Tuesday.

Both parties scrambled to make sense of the tie situation. In this oil-rich twin island nation, the Constitution states the president may appoint a prime minister who he thinks would command a majority. It doesn’t specify what to do in the case of a tie.

``My understanding of the Constitution is when there is a tie, the president must call on the incumbent prime minister to form a government,″ Panday told more than 1,000 flag-waving supporters late Monday in the sugarcane heartland of Couva, 18 miles south of the capital, Port-of-Spain.

Manning, cautious of declaring a victory, said it was up to President Arthur Robinson to choose the next prime minister. Robinson, a longtime rival of Panday, could not immediately be reached for comment.

After Panday’s election victory last year, Robinson refused to appoint seven losing candidates to the Cabinet, saying it went against the voters’ will. He eventually gave in to Panday.

Panday, who was re-elected to a second term a year ago, called elections after dissent within his Indian-backed United National Congress threatened to end its slim majority in Parliament.

``It was the prime minister’s decision to call the election early,″ Manning said. ``He called it because he was unable to govern. Today, he’s still unable to govern.″

Trinidad and Tobago’s elections have sharpened tensions between descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers, who almost evenly split the country’s population.

The prime minister’s mainly Indian-descended supporters have pointed to economic progress and said his administration has brought electricity and water to poor areas. But the People’s National Movement has accused Panday’s government of tolerating corruption and reserving government jobs for those of Indian descent.

``I’m very happy with the gains that the PNM has made,″ said Wilfred Rosales, a 58-year-old retired police officer. ``Now it’s time to build that confidence in the government.″

About 850,000 voters out of the 1.3 million in the Caribbean nation were to have cast ballots but it was unclear what the actual turnout was. Only 55,000 live on the smaller and poorer island of Tobago _ mostly Afro-Trinidadians who support the opposition.

Five political parties contested the elections, including a new splinter group from Panday’s party formed by former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and other defectors who accused the government of tolerating corruption.

Maharaj conceded defeat Monday. ``We will become the watchdog of the nation’s soul,″ he said.

Just weeks before calling the elections, Panday fired Maharaj and another Cabinet minister, and a third stepped down. All three claimed the prime minister failed to crack down on corruption.

Panday insists he is cleaning up graft, and his party’s campaign slogan was ``Performance is what counts,″ pointing to a strong economy.

Panday’s 1995 election victory marked the first time an Indian-based party had gained power. Since then, foreign investment has flourished and unemployment has dropped to 12 percent from 19 percent in 1995.

Manning’s party, which also calls itself pro-business, governed for more than two decades after independence from Britain in 1962.

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