PORT OF SPAIN, Nov 5 (Reuters) Trinidad and Tobago held a general election today with a new opposition party hoping to tap into voter discontent in the energy-rich nation and bridge a long-standing divide between its people of African and Indian descent.
Early turnout appeared light in some polling stations in the capital of the former British colony. But election officials said at least 60 per cent of the more than 990,000 eligible voters were expected to cast ballots.
Many opinion polls have shown the ruling People's National Movement, or PNM, of Prime Minister Patrick Manning returning to power in the race for a simple majority of seats in the newly expanded 41-member parliament.
The PNM, which garners most of its support from blacks, was founded 51 years ago. In control of the government for all of about 11 years of that time, it has been a dominant force in the twin-island nation's politics.
The reliability of polls has been thrown into doubt by leading political figures, however, amid warnings not to write off the well-oiled electoral machinery of the United National Congress, which draws most of its support from Trinidadians of Indian descent.
The UNC is headed by veteran politician Basdeo Panday, a charismatic 72-year-old who enjoys a cult-like following in parts of the Indian community despite a conviction last year for failing to declare a London bank account while serving previously as prime minister.
Both traditional parties have been hurt by corruption and a growing wave of discontent with politics as usual across the English-speaking Caribbean.
And while the extent of that dissatisfaction is difficult to gauge, some polls have shown the upstart Congress of the People, or COP, a multi-racial party founded just a year ago by former central bank governor Winston Dookeran, posing a serious challenge to both the PNM and UNC.
The COP, which analysts say has won most of its support among Trinidad's growing middle class, was running neck-and-neck with the PNM in one recent survey.
Even if the COP picks up just a handful of seats, many believe the third party could become a power broker in the country, whose natural gas and energy resources have made it the envy of the Caribbean.
SIZZLING GROWTH Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela, is the top exporter of liquefied natural gas to the United States.
''If Dookeran winds up with six or eight seats he could actually end up holding the balance of power in the country. It could be pretty remarkable,'' said Ken Boodhoo, a political analyst at Florida International University.
Many lower-class blacks and Indo-Trinidadians are still likely to vote along traditional party lines in the country, where each group tends to favor the PNM or UNC.
But a multi-ethnic party known as the National Alliance for Reconstruction, a loosely woven coalition representing Trinidadians of both African and Indian descent, scored a landslide victory against the PNM in 1986 and many believe it is time, once again, to take race out of local politics.
The COP has managed to build solid support among the burgeoning middle class, and it has crossed ethnic barriers by focusing on issues such as calls for better distribution of oil and gas resources, a stepped-up fight against crime and rescue of Trinidad's hard-scrabble farming sector.
Crime was the biggest single issue in the run-up to the election, according to many political analysts.
Police and government officials say gangs have expanded because of Trinidad's growing role as a transshipment point for South American cocaine, even as unemployment has hit record lows in the country which enjoyed sizzling economic growth of 12 per cent last year.
REUTERS MP AS0113