Heavy voting in Trinidad and Tobago election

The people of Trinidad and Tobago began voting at 6 a.m. Monday in a general election in Trinidad and Tobago that will determine which of the three political parties will be in government for the next five years in this oil-rich nation in the southern Caribbean.

The possibility of sweeping constitutional changes that would turn Trinidad and Tobago's government into a U.S.-style presidency is at stake as voters began casting ballots at 6 a.m. Monday in a national election.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning, seen here after voting in Belmont, has represented San Fernando East since 1971. ((Max Ottley))

The governing People's National Movement, or PNM, held 20 of 36 seats in the oil-rich Caribbean country's previous Parliament and is likely to be re-elected with a comfortable majority, unless the two main opposition parties can avoid vote-splitting.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning is hoping to gain a special majority of at least 28 seats in Parliament — which, after boundary changes, now has 41 seats — to introduce constitutional amendments that will establish an executive presidency.

The opposition and even some PNM members have warned that Manning has a secret agenda to concentrate too much power in the executive president and create a dictatorship, a charge Manning has dismissed.

Polls — which are often far from accurate and sometimes partisan — show that a combined opposition vote can unseat the Manning government.

But the threat of vote-splitting looms over the United National Congress Alliance, which won the remaining 16 seats in the last election, and a splinter faction, the Congress of the People, formed in 2006 when UNC political leader Winston Dookeran broke ranks and took several of the party's legislators with him.

For the two opposition parties, it's a family feud. They are drawing support from the same constituencies. In a final appeal to the electorate Sunday night, the UNC Alliance called on Dookeran's supporters to focus on what's good for the nation and vote UNC. It said the empirical evidence shows that the Congress of the People cannot win a seat but can split the vote to guarantee a PNM victory.

Former prime minister Basdeo Panday emerges from voting in South Trinidad, raising his index finger to show the ink used as a security precaution in elections. Panday is a co-leader of the main opposition UNC Alliance. ((Max Ottley))

In emotional responses to the call for a united front, many COP supporters phoned in to radio talk shows to say that they have understood the political reality and will vote for the UNC Alliance.

"We love COP, but we love the country more," one caller said. But the COP leadership has ignored the rallying cry and insists it will win the election.

Drug trade

One of the most important issues in the election has been crime.

This tiny nation of just over one million is a trans-shipment point for drugs from Latin America. And the drug trade has created a level of crime that is unprecedented in Trinidad and Tobago's history, with 1,700 murders in the past six years and more than 300 kidnappings for ransom. A total of 292 murders have been reported this year.

Voting was unusually brisk Monday morning at most polling stations, with no reports of significant irregularities. Opposition parties are hoping a high turnout will help them.

An independent election observer team from the Caribbean Community was monitoring the vote, but it has no authority to do anything to prevent any irregularities.

The Election and Boundaries Commission, the independent authority that governs the electoral process, assured that everything is in place for a free and fair vote. It said it is equipped to deal with organizational or other problems that may develop during the day.

There are more than 900,000 registered voters, and 130 candidates for the various seats in Parliament.