The first female prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago faces a tough fight for re-election Monday amid complaints about corruption and violent crime in the twin-island Caribbean nation.
Polls show a close race for control of Parliament between the coalition led by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the party of opposition leader Keith Rowley.
The two rivals have similar ideology and divide largely along ethnic lines. Each claims it will do a better job of tackling violent crime and managing the country\’s natural gas and oil resources amid falling prices.
The two also have traded accusations of corruption, some lobbied by ousted former world soccer official Jack Warner, who is seeking to recapture a seat in Parliament while fighting extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges.
Five parties and several independents are contesting the 41 seats in the Parliament.
Persad-Bissessar, 63, took office in May 2010 at the head of the four-party People\’s Partnership coalition.
She has called crime the No. 1 problem in the country and proposes better policing and a zero-tolerance approach.
"Now is not the time to experiment with any inexperienced party," she said at a recent rally. "You need to give us another five years to finish our work."
The prime minister has promised a new highway, a children\’s hospital, free laptops for primary school students and grants to single mothers.
The United National Congress, the largest contingent in the prime minister\’s coalition, has its base of support with people of East Indian descent who make up about 35 percent of the population of 1.2 million.
Opposition leader Keith Rowley, leader of the People\’s National Movement, has his base among people of African descent, who also make up about 35 percent. Some of his supporters accuse the ruling party of taking ethnic politics too far.
"I am against this government because of its ethnic agenda in promoting its Indo supporters, giving them the major jobs in the public service over Afro-Trinis," said Karen Bart Alexander, a social development planner.
Persad-Bissessar has included officials of African descent in her Cabinet, including Warner, who was national security minister until April 2013. He resigned after an ethics panel of the regional COCACAF soccer federation released a report accusing him of enriching himself through fraud during his tenure with the organization.
He was one of 14 people indicted in the U.S. on corruption charges involving international soccer\’s governing body FIFA and has been battling extradition. Polls suggest he is unlikely to regain the seat he lost when his term expired in June.
The People\’s National Movement led the country to independence in 1962 and held power for most of the next half century.
It has accused the government of mismanaging the oil-based economy, which has averaged annual growth of only half a percent over the past five years.
Rowley said the economy needs to be diversified to lessen the island\’s dependence on its energy sector.