Campaigning fierce before Trinidad and Tobago heads to polls

The three main political parties in Trinidad and Tobago have wrapped up their campaigns for Monday's general election, seen as one of the most keenly contested ballot in two decades.

Mass rallies on Saturday collectively attracted more than 120,000 supporters

With motorcades rolling through the various constituencies Sunday, the three main political parties in Trinidad and Tobago wrapped up their campaigns for Monday's general election, which is seen as one of the most keenly contested ballot in two decades.

The key election issue for the opposition has been runaway crime. There have been 1,700 homicides and 300 kidnappings for ransom in the six years since Prime Minister Patrick Manning's government took office, with 40 brutal murders in the past month alone.

The opposition has also accused the governing People's National Movement (PNM) of mismanagement of the economy and of squandering more than $200 billion on mega-projects while essential services like health and infrastructure have been allowed to deteriorate.

Another very contentious issue is constitutional change. The government wants to introduce a new constitution with an executive president, but says it is committed to public consultation. The opposition has charged that the prime minister has a secret agenda to put a new constitution in place that would erode the country's freedoms and put individual liberties at risk.

Corruption is also a major issue. Transparency International's index of the perception of corruption is at its worst ever, with the country's score at 3.2 — on a scale of one to 10, with one being the highest. At least two former government ministers are before the courts on charges of corruption and influence peddling.

But while politicians have talked about these matters on their respective platforms, there is no real indication that voting will be based on a critical examination of issues. Trinidad and Tobago's elections are traditionally based on ethnicity and party loyalty.

Predicting the result is not easy in this election. The one common suggestion from pollsters is that the combined opposition is stronger than the governing People's National Movement and could leave the PNM in a minority situation. Still, the peculiar nature of the first-past-the-post system means that the PNM can win a majority of seats in the 41-member House of Representatives with just over 30 per cent of the popular vote.

The three parties contesting the election staged mass rallies Saturday, which collectively attracted more than 120,000 supporters.

Manning promised an overwhelming victory, adding that he would sweep the floor with his political opponents. However, he said his supporters should show no animosity to people who support the opposition parties.

The UNC Alliance attracted the largest crowd, estimated at more than 60,000. Its leader, former prime ministerBasdeo Panday, told supporters that his 41 years inpublic service is now over and appealed for voters to remove the PNM from office and let him retire "in a blaze of glory."

The Congress of the People (COP) attracted the smallest crowd and its leader, Winston Dookeran, kept his focus on crime. He also accused the government for spending more than $16 million of taxpayers' dollars on political advertising. He called it a betrayal of trust and misbehaviour in public office.

More than 900,000 people are eligible to vote, including 18,000 Commonwealth citizens.There are 130 candidates, including nine independents.