Ethno-Nationalism and Ethnic Dynamics in Trinidad and Tobago: Toward Designing an Inclusivist Form of Governance

  • Ralph PremdasEmail author
Living reference work entry


In the literature dealing with mechanisms of reconciliation and ethnic conflict management, an array of conflict resolution institutions and practices have evolved. The 2010 elections in Trinidad offer one case that demonstrates how this was done. What the 2010 elections underscored is that in an ethnically deeply divided state, victory at the polls required some transcendence of the communal divide through the forging of a broad multicultural coalition as well as interclass collaboration. In the end we must evaluate the argument that Trinidad had moved from a race and ethnicity voting pattern into issue-oriented politics.


Deep ethnic division Ethnic partisan politics First-past-the-post electoral system Proportional representation Conflict resolution First woman premier Multicultural coalition 


The image of a politically stable and economically prosperous state in Trinidad and Tobago (Trinidad hereafter) conceals powerful internal contradictions in the society. Many critical tensions prowl through the body politic threatening to throw the society into turmoil (Yelvington 1992; Oxaal 1961; Premdas 1991, 1992; Hintzen 1989; MacDonald 1986; Sandoval 1983; Naipaul 1962; Wood 1968). Perhaps, the most salient of these tensions derives from the country’s multiethnic population. Below the veneer of inter-communal camaraderie lurks a sense of deep ethnically rooted sectionalism, which pervades the society like blood in the body (Anderson 1983; Premdas 2009). After the colonial power departed in 1962, governance in Trinidad and Tobago was rendered doubly difficult as the new state found itself preoccupied by the rival political claims of the country’s two largest ethnic sections constituted of Indians and Africans in an antagonistic partisan relationship to each other. This is the basic contradiction in the state coming to occupy center stage in governance and political life defining issues and dominating daily discourse. Each ethnic section views its interests differently not only in relation to its symbolic and cultural life but in relation to claims for power, recognition, and economic resources. In turn, at the political level, inter-communal competition reverberated on the issue of establishing legitimate rule in a form of government that did not pose a threat to the survival of another group’s identity and interests and that ensured that the values of the state could be equitably distributed.

The governmental system bequeathed by Britain was anything but an arrangement that guaranteed the fulfillment of the political and cultural aims of the ethnic communities in the state. Indeed, the inherited British parliamentary system was erected on a zero-sum competitive party system that tended to inflame ethnic passions and apportion privileges very unevenly. This internal contradiction in Trinidad’s polity stood as its most potent threat to stability of the society. Ethnic dominance in government and identity politics in society bedeviled governance and soon became a way of life fraught with an immense undercurrent of sectional alienation for the losers in the competition for recognition and resources. Each election that came tended to raise anew all the unresolved issues of ethnic equity much of this related to institutional appropriateness in a plural society (Brereton 1979). As it happened in Trinidad, one ethnic group led by the People’s National Movement (PNM) in an essentially ethnically bipolar state had captured power for almost three decades after independence and in the perception of the other major ethnic community instituted an order that was ethnically repressive and discriminatory. When the out-group led by the United National Congress (UNC) eventually captured power in 1995, it in turn was similarly accused of discrimination. An election campaign assumed the form of identity rivalry expressed in a collective communal struggle in which the claims of each community as a whole were reignited anew and expressed in uncompromising terms. Repeated victory by one sectional community over the other was not accepted by the vanquished group which tended to withdraw its moral support from the state.

In this chapter, we address the problem of finding a solution to the ethnic partisan division in Trinidad. In the literature dealing with mechanisms of reconciliation and ethnic conflict management, an array of conflict resolution institutions and practices have evolved. Some observers have advocated power sharing as the master key in eliminating ethnically exclusivist regimes, while others have argued for a predictable process of allocating resources through fixed quotas, proportions, and shares (Lijphart 1977; Montville 1990). The idea behind such proposals is to depoliticize the sharp and deadly rivalry for power and resource allocation by minimizing or removing it from the sphere of electoral contestation. The emphasis is on maintaining order and stability by neutralizing the turbulence of ethnic claims and counterclaims and charges of ethnic exclusion, discrimination, and favoritism over jobs and state benefits. Overall, the causes as well as the solutions offered are all founded on the overwhelming preeminence assigned to the political and economic factors. In this chapter we address the issue of finding a solution through the prism of the 2010 general elections. The 2010 elections in Trinidad offer one case that demonstrates how this was done. In analyzing these elections, we will evaluate the claim that in the victory of the People’s Party (PP), a multiethnic formation, a major shift in partisan preference had occurred and a new type of issue-based politics had now emerged cutting across race and class superseding the old ethnically oriented voting pattern. What the 2010 elections did underscore is that in an ethnically deeply divided state where neither of the two dominant groups, Africans (37%) and Indians (42%), constituted a majority and where in the past two main political parties have tended to reflect this bifurcated condition, victory at the polls required some transcendence of the communal divide from a small enough minority who can aid the forging of a broad multicultural coalition as well as interclass collaboration. In 2010 such a small shift had occurred, but, in the end, we must evaluate that the argument that Trinidad had moved from a race and ethnicity voting pattern into an issue-oriented politics is unwarranted and premature. Before we enter these elections, we must provide a background into the Trinidad state.

Trinidad and Tobago: An Introduction

Situated in the southern Caribbean just 7 miles from Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago is a small twin island multiethnic state with about 1.3 million people enjoying a per capita well-being that has ranked it at position 49th in the UNDP’s medium Human Development category. Trinidad is the larger of the two islands both in population (1,220,000) and geographical size, 4,820 km2, and with a more variegated population of six ethnic communities, while Tobago with only 51,000 people and 303 km2. is almost entirely ethnically homogeneously Afro-Creole. Until 1888, Tobago was under separate British administration when it was joined to Trinidad. On Trinidad, two main ethnic groups predominate, Afro-Creoles of African descent and Indians of Asian descent, almost of equal size with neither an absolute majority in the population (see Table 1).
Table 1

Ethnic groups and size (Source: Central Statistical Office, Trinidad and Tobago (1990))

Ethnic group



African or Afro-Creole

Indian or Indo-Creole





Other ethnic groups

Not stated




















Inter-ethnic relations between Afro-Creoles (Africans hereafter) and Asian-descended Indians (Indians hereafter) are publicly cordial, but patterns of cultural differences separate the main communities into contesting sections in quest of social, economic, and political preeminence. As a plural society, Trinidad lacks strong overarching unifying institutions and is frequently submitted to centrifugal political pressures and tensions that threaten to rend the society apart at its ethnic seams. A vibrant parliamentary democracy, independent since 31 August 1962, Trinidad became a Republic in 1976 but remains a part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Generally, elections have been regular, free, and fair and political succession orderly. Two main political parties each representing one of the two main ethnic communities have dominated the political arena competing for 36 seats until 2007 when it was changed to 41 seats in the House of Representatives. For the first 25 years after independence, the predominantly African political party, the PNM, won consecutive elections dominating the political arena under the leadership of Eric Williams. From 1995 to 2001, the Indian-based party, the United National Congress (UNC) led by Basdeo Panday, held political power. After an ethnically charged stalemated deadlock in the equal number of parliamentary seats (18–18) obtained by the two parties in the December 2001 elections, and a period of tense limbo for almost a year, the PNM has returned to power under Prime Minister Patrick Manning with a majority of parliamentary seats in the 2002 general elections. In the 2007 general elections, the PNM won again with a decisive majority of 26 seats out of 41. The 2010 elections came unexpectedly just a bit more than 2 years after the victory in 2007.

The economy of Trinidad is based mainly on minerals (petrochemicals, petroleum, and gas) and, until about 2002, sugar, with the former accounting for about 52% of all export earnings and providing about 32% of all government revenues. The discovery of petroleum at the turn of the twentieth century and more recently of extensive gas fields has radically transformed the economy from agricultural (mainly sugar) dependence to petroleum and gas so that Trinidad stands apart in this respect from other Caribbean countries. Like many plural societies, Trinidad’s economy displays ethno-sectoral differentiation so that Afro-Creoles are found mainly in the public bureaucracy, professions, and the petrochemical industries; Indians, who used to predominate in the now defunct sugar industry, today are found mainly in business, agriculture, the professions, as well as the public bureaucracy, while the small European, Chinese, and Syrian communities are found mainly in trading and businesses. An industrial economy (agriculture less than 2% of GNP with white-collar jobs accounting for about 60% of all jobs) has created a large middle class. Unemployment hovers around 5% today, but some 20% of the country lives below the poverty line. Residentially, while there is no segregation and the public arena is fluid, free, and highly ethnically interactive, most persons live in regions, villages, and neighborhoods that display a strong measure of ethnic self-selectivity and concentration (Clarke 1993, 123).

Trinidad was under Crown Colony governance since 1797 when the British assumed control of Trinidad; it took more than another hundred years before an element of popular representation was introduced in the colonial council. In 1925, the Crown Colony system was jettisoned, and for the next two decades, gradually, the colony moved toward universal adult suffrage in 1946, internal self-government in 1956, and finally independence in 1962. During this trek propelled by a combination of external changes in the international order and internal pressures from popular agitation, mass political parties emerged especially after the introduction of universal adult suffrage. In turn, this heralded the mobilization of voters into an assortment of racial and non-racial groupings. By 1946, Trinidad and Tobago’s population had reached a bit more than a half a million with Afro-Creoles constituting about 47% of the population and Indians 35%. With the introduction of universal adult suffrage, a new political arena was constructed littered by an assortment of independent candidates and ad hoc political parties vying for public office. It was however under the leadership of the PNM and its Afro-Creole charismatic leader, Eric Williams, that some order in the organization and articulation of public opinion occurred bringing an end to the disarray in the political arena. Launched in 1956, the PNM’s charter proclaimed a commitment to promote equity in a multiracial society (Ryan 1972). In practice, the PNM however attracted a predominantly Afro-Creole following. Ethnic identity had already assumed salience when Indians were mobilized under the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and French Creoles under the Party of Political Progress Groups (POPPG). At first, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) joined forces with the French Creole party during the 1952 elections to oppose all other parties. In the partisan competition, the PNM emerged as the most formidable organized formation beginning with its victory in the 1956 general elections in which it won 13 of 24 seats. By 1960, however, the three-party ethnic triangle yielded to a bipolar structure in which the PNM confronted the Indian-based DLP. With this event, Trinidad was seemingly settled permanently into the destructive morass of a bipolar partisan order. In the 1961 elections that set the stage for independence in 1962, for the first time the two major ethnically based parties squared off with practically no other meaningful contestants. The two of them shared the 30 seats in the House of Representative pointing to the elimination of individual independent candidates and third parties as the political arena became starkly more polarized.

The intense pressure from the campaign aroused an ethnically divided electorate driving the two communal sections apart as never before. The 1961 election campaign was the last just before independence and therefore was the most critical contest. The victors from these elections would be placed in a strategic position to define the fate of its political and ethnic adversaries. The threat of open violence was very palpable. The polity became deeply polarized with the ethnic division becoming the defining mark of subsequent elections. Two ethnically based parties bestrode the political landscape sharing all the seats in parliament. The PNM became so dominant for the next six elections and for a stretch of 25 years that it had established a virtual dominant one-party state. To be sure, especially after the PNM had been in power for several years and incompetence and corruption had become pervasive, splinter organizations outside the two-party system emerged basing their appeals in part on class and intra-communal divisions. In 1981 such a party in the Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR) appeared but was decimated in the general elections. In 1985, another more powerful such party arose in the NAR; it succeeded in defeating the PNM. But these were aberrations and deviations from the norm of the embedded ethnic partisan preference that citizens practiced. The ethnic partisan pattern had come to reflect and reinforce the general political disposition of Afro-Creoles and Indians for voting for their communal parties. Except at election time, successive elections have created continuous ethnic malaise but not sufficiently expressive as to mar daily harmonious relations; however hypocritical inter-ethnic friendships may be. The ethnic factor became so entrenched that it tended to enter into all aspects of political behavior and into all public institutions animating their life, crippling their vibrancy in a broken political will.

The PNM led the colony to independence in 1962 and for six consecutive parliamentary terms served as the ruling party until 1986. The Afro-Creole community, which constituted the largest community (43.5%) at that time, was able to repeatedly return to power, this made possible because most of the mixed-race community (17%) supported it as well as a smattering of others. To the African communal core, the PNM, while in power, was able to consolidate its electoral majority from the mixed races, Europeans (French Creoles), Chinese, and a significant slice of the Indian middle class. Wielding undisputed paramountcy over the polity and society in its control over jobs, contracts, and other values, the PNM at once became a tower of strength and place of reverence in periods of plenty and a source of all sin in times of adversity.

PNM’s consecutive victories were registered in a winner takes all parliamentary system based on single seat simple plurality. In effect, this parliamentary and electoral system when articulated into the ethnic communalized structure of partisan choice meant that the defeated party was almost totally excluded from power and privileges. The political system gave no incentive to consociation and power sharing across the ethnic divine but reinforced the sectional cleavages breeding alienation among the out-group. To be sure, the PNM did appoint a few Indians to its cabinet in governing but in a country where most Indians were Hindus; no Hindu was ever appointed to the PNM cabinet in 26 years after independence when Indians became the largest ethnic community in Trinidad. For Indians, this smacked of discrimination which they saw manifested in the stacking of the public service with PNM supporters and in the skewed allocation of other benefits and resources of the state.

The 2010 Elections

In 2010, in a dramatic general election, the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) in Trinidad and Tobago (TT), only halfway in its term of office and with a comfortable majority of seats in parliament, chose unexpectedly to go to the polls. It was ousted in a landslide victory by a coalition of five parties calling itself the People’s Partnership bringing 10 years of uninterrupted PNM rule to an end and witnessing the installing of the first woman Prime Minister in the country’s history. In an ethnically deeply divided state where neither of the two dominant groups, Africans (37%) and Indians (42%), constituted a majority, in the past two main political parties have tended to reflect this bifurcated condition. In the 2010 elections, there was a change in the structure of the bipolar ethnic partisan competition. In a two-way fight, the predominantly African-based People’s National Movement (PNM) did not face its familiar adversary represented by an Indian-based party but a broad-based multicultural People’s Partnership (PP) party with the former acquiring 12 seats and the latter 29. In the victory of the People’s Partnership coalition party (PP), a claim was made that a major shift in partisan preference had occurred and a new type of issue-based politics had now emerged cutting across race and class superseding the old ethnically oriented voting pattern. Does an analysis of the election results confirm that victory at the polls signified a radical transcendence of the communal divide? In part, this chapter discusses this question.

In the 2010 elections then, two major party formations, the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the Peoples’ Partnership (PP), competed with each other along with an insignificant smattering of independent candidates and parties. In the 2010 elections, there were some different features from the norm that could potentially have altered the polarized pattern of voting and the familiar campaign strategy. The PP had amassed a variety of groups in its coalition structure and was composed thus of:
  1. (a)

    The old Indian-based UNC, the largest part of the PP, led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

  2. (b)

    The Congress of the People (COP) led by Winston Dookeran which broke away from the UNC to compete as a separate party beginning in the 2007 elections constituted mainly of a fairly large inter-ethnic middle-class support base.

  3. (c)

    The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), led by Daaga, was the old militant African-based urban party which had some support among Africans and the politically radical community in Trinidad.

  4. (d)

    The Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), led by Ainsley Jack, was a Tobago party.

  5. (e)

    The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), led by Afro-Creole Errol McLeod and a prominent mixed-race leader, Stephen Cadiz, was a trade union-based party.


Many environmental and women’s NGOs also aligned with the PP to constitute a broad-based multiethnic formation. Despite its formal affiliation with the UNC and that its leader derived from the UNC, the PP formation was much more ethnically mixed and interclass than the PNM which was depending overwhelmingly on its African rump in its traditional strongholds to forge a victory. There was no ideological cleavage of consequence that separated the two contenders in the race even though the PP sought to emphasize its populism.

Once the election was called, much to Manning’s surprise, this pushed the divided Opposition to coalesce bringing a starling alignment of the UNC, COP, TOP, NJAC, and MSJ along with a number of other civil groups and NGOs. It was a formidable alliance that Manning could hardly have anticipated, but it occurred at a time when poll after poll had showed that in the light of the UDeCOTT scandal and growing lawlessness in the country, the Prime Minister, Manning, was at his most unpopular. What added potency to the new formation called the PP was that it unanimously elected Kamla Bissessar as its leader. She had only a few months earlier in an astonishing internal UNC election defeated the long-standing UNC leader, Panday, for the leadership of the UNC, and with that act she became the official leader of the Opposition in parliament. While Panday had obstructed previous attempts to unify COP and the UNC, Kamla Bissessar proved to be ready for a compromise in unifying the Opposition forces to defeat the PNM. Kamla Bissessar projected a refreshing face, but the fact remained that she was a woman and an Indian and together it was expected that the PNM would eventually triumph. However, the PP was successful in significantly altering its image as a party that had two prominent Indian leaders in Kamla Bissessar and Winston Dookeran. It did so by recruiting several very popular African leaders such as McLeod, Daaga, Cadiz, etc. COP, on joining the coalition, was also able to bring on board NJAC, TOP in Tobago, and a significant number of Indian and African middle-class supporters. This mix was able to transcend an Indian image and became a credible multiethnic grouping with a significant number of African, French Creole, mixed race, and Tobago leaders on its helm. This unified multiethnic and multicultural face so defined the PP in its campaign that it was poignantly in contrast to the largely uni-ethnic façade of the PNM. The PP sold itself as a racially, culturally, and ethnically unified movement with a promise to deliver Trinidad from the old ethnically divisive politics and from the scandal saturated PNM.

In the 2010 elections, Trinidad and Tobago (TT) was divided into 41 constituencies. To determine a winner in each constituency, the electoral system provided for a simple plurality of votes. To win control of the government requires a party to win a majority of constituencies. The persistence of a fundamentally ethicized system of voting preference has in turn impacted on the manner in which political campaigns had been conducted. More specifically, since about 31–32 of the 41 constituencies were predominantly either Indian or African, a campaign tended to focus on the handful of mixed marginal seats. In effect, because of the first-past-the-post simple plurality electoral system, under which a simple plurality of votes determines the winner in a constituency, it made little sense in the past for the Indian-based UNC to waste resources campaigning in the African-majority constituencies and for the PNM likewise to campaign seriously in the Indian-dominated seats. Although accurate statistical data are not available to tell precisely the ethnic ratios in all of the constituencies, the results of previous elections between the PNM and UNC registered a reliable pattern of ethicized voter preferences in all the constituencies with the ones dominated by Indians and Africans clearly identifiable and most predictable. Since neither party could muster a majority of seats by itself from its ethnic strongholds, this meant that winning in the handful of marginal constituencies became critical.

In the campaign, the PP divided the 41 constituencies into clusters of seats with each cluster assigned to a specific coalition component which in turn was allowed to choose its own candidates and take responsibility for winning the seats assigned to it. However, a single overarching coordinated campaign strategy was designed for the PP pooling resources to defray the costs of the expensive media aspect of the campaign and avoid overlaps and conflicts. It is however significant to note that in the division of the constituencies into clusters among themselves, the UNC kept all of the Indian-based constituencies except the St. Augustine constituency. All of the other constituencies that the PP competed in were either marginal or PNM-dominated stronghold constituencies. In effect, two types of PP strategies were crafted so that the Indian-dominated constituencies were under the familiar Indian-based UNC party, while in the others a more pointed multicultural strategy was designed to garner votes from all communities. The PNM as a single unified party however did not have to construct such a complex strategy for votes simply relying on its strongholds for most of its seats while hoping to win nearly all of the mixed marginal constituencies also for a combined majority.

A single overarching coordinated campaign strategy was designed for the PP pooling resources and avoiding overlaps and conflicts. Several placements were notable in the PP assignment of seats among its component parts. First, COP leader, Winston Dookeran, was assigned at Tunapuna which was a marginal constituency currently under PNM control. Second, in the marginal seats of St. Joseph, Pointe a Pierre, Chaguanas East, and San Juan/Barataria, won by the PNM in the last elections, the PP placed exceptionally prominent candidates. The PP also targeted several PNM stronghold seats, deploying prominent and popular mixed race and African candidates, with the intention not just to offer a token contest but with the bold purpose of wrestling these seats from the PNM. In Tobago, the PP again offered under TOP two very prominent local leaders. While the PP projected a fresh set of new and exciting candidates, the PNM relied on its former candidates largely drawn from the victorious team from the 2007 elections.


The issues that dominated the campaign were of two sorts: (a) non-ethnic types and (b) ethnic types. Further, certain issues and appeals were made publicly in the overt face of the campaign, while others of a more communal nature were deployed in the covert face. We shall examine the non-ethnic type first. On the hustings as the parties launched their campaign, a festive tenor was intermixed by an underlying sobriety that a change of government is at hand. The PP successfully crafted a very catchy set of slogans such as “Manning must Go” and “Time for Change” that sustained the momentum that it seized almost immediately from the PNM (Grant 2010, 13). The riposte was tame by comparison with the PNM stressing “Service,” “Stability,” “Prosperity,” and “Performance” in its message. The PP was able to outdo the PNM by offering an attractive twenty-point list of promises that it intended to accomplish in its first 120 days in office.

A barrage of scandals descended on the PNM bedeviling its campaign to regain office dogging them every step along the way casting over them a dark shadow of corruption and abuse of office on a scale that offended the sensibility of all citizens of all parties, ethnicities, and ideological persuasions (Newsday 2010, 10). The particular issue that triggered the scandals came to be known by the designation, “UDeCOTT,” which was the government agency established to carry out the construction of many very large-scale costly projects. With hefty amounts of gas-generated revenues caused by a spike in gas and petroleum prices, the Trinidad treasury was inundated with unprecedented largesse. Under the inspiration of Manning, the government embarked on a program of conspicuous construction of a number of extravagant building projects that included sports stadiums, hotels, performing arts facilities, a new university campus, etc. Placed in charge of this enterprise was businessman Calder Hart who had extensive connections with construction companies both locally and internationally, especially from the People’s Republic of China and Malaysia which were to be employed in expeditiously carrying out these projects.

The key whistle-blower was no less a person than the Deputy Leader of the ruling PNM, Dr. Keith Rowley, who was an aggressively outspoken and popular leader in the PNM and at one time a rival of Manning for the leadership of the party. Rowley had interrogated Hart about his seemingly unlimited power in accessing public funds, in distributing contracts, and in constructing these grandiose projects. In a confrontation with Hart, Rowley seemed to have been boisterous, and it was this event which led Manning to evict him from the Cabinet for “wajang behavior.” Under public pressure, Manning was forced to appoint the UDeCOTT Commission of Inquiry into the construction industry headed by a British engineering professor, John Uff. The issues thrown up by the UDeCOTT Inquiry dealt simultaneously with unaccountability in the use of state funds for several mega projects which violated established official legal tendering procedures and processes by which contracts were awarded transparently and competitively. For nearly 2 years, witnesses of all kinds were interrogated publicly so that a picture of gross unaccountability, unfairness in the award of contracts, political opportunism, nepotism, and waste and abuse in using public funds was formed in the public’s mind. These revelations were sensationalized in the media, and while Rowley was exonerated, he was not returned to the cabinet so that when the elections were called the Rowley-Manning schism had become a major problem in mobilizing PNM support (Singh 2010, 12). Rowley had charged Manning for being authoritarian and for turning the internal democratic processes in the PNM into a travesty. Later after the PNM was defeated, Rowley would argue that the main reason resided in Manning’s autocratic use of power and his subverting democracy within the PNM (Ali 2010, A5). There was no doubt that the UDeCOTT affair had severely undermined Manning’s moral mandate to rule. Above all, it was this issue that had come to offend many PNM supporters especially in relation to the dismissal of Rowley from the cabinet and caused a major rift in the ranks of the party. It has been argued that the internal schism was so deep that many PNM supporters decided to stay at home rather than vote for the PNM while a small percentage actually did turn against the PNM on election day (Ali 2010: A6). Some of these dissident PNM supporters made plain that they were not voting against the PNM but against its leader, Manning. The PNM had counted on the loyalty of its traditional communal supporters on the campaign trail, appealing to them “to hold their nose tight” to avert the embarrassment caused by the behavior of their party in office and vote for it nevertheless to avert victory of their Indian communal opponents and the possibility of domination and discrimination. The PNM did so in a subtle way reminding PNM supporters of the benefits that they had received under PNM rule and that this was likely to be all lost under a UNC-dominated PP government. Clearly, the PNM was trying to extricate itself from problems of misgovernance by using ethnic and communal appeals. It created great psychological dissonance for PNM supporters who saw the PNM not just as a voting machine but a primordial home in defining their historical identity. In a multiethnic state where ethnic identity shapes issues and elevates irrational sentiments above reasoned arguments and empirical evidence, it is rare that the hearts of voters will easily change away from their political parties with which they have been traditionally and historically associated. These parties tend to serve more than just periodic points of casting a supportive ballot and more like an ingrained deep-rooted communal axis of multidimensional solidarity that provides for collective security and identity. Because of the UDeCOTT scandal, the 2010 elections challenged this primordial attachment of PNM African supporters so that in the face of powerful rational arguments against voting for the PNM, only a small percentage probably about 5–10% made the shift. It was however all that was necessary to see the defeat of the PNM.

Coming out of the inquiry also was a charge that gained traction in the campaign and became a major issue on leadership style and substance specifically related to the charge of Manning’s alleged arrogance (Fraser 2010, A28), the building of a new multimillion-dollar residence for the Manning, ridiculed by the local press as the “Emperor’s Palace” for a cost approaching (TT) $200 m, in part taken as evidence of this arrogance. Another scandal that appeared just before Manning called the elections related to the building of a Pentecostal Christian church, called Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ, at Guanapo Heights, Arima, that seemed to involve the use of state funds, possibly close to TT$50 to 75 million. Manning had a spiritual adviser, a self-styled “prophetess” from the United States named Rev. Juliana Pena for whom it was alleged that a large expensive church was being built. The parliamentary Opposition leveled an incendiary charge that the church which was being built by the same construction firm, Shanghai Construction Corporation that also built several of the state’s mega projects including Manning’s palatial residence, was given excessively overpriced contracts for the other state projects in exchange for the building of the “free” church for Manning’s spiritual adviser. More specific evidence which was to be presented in parliament by Kamla Bissessar during a vote of no confidence prompted to the surprise of everyone the Prime Minister’s decison to dissolve parliament and call new elections. While the facts were still to be established, in the wake of the UDeCOTT Inquiry, the church quickly became entangled in corruption charges and emerged as a controversial lightning rod issue in the campaign. Finally, there were a few other scandals involving similar unaccountability in the use of massive amounts of public funds. These included the building of the extensive University of Trinidad and Tobago campus. In another case involving the collapse of the biggest investment and insurance company in Trinidad, CLICO, the issue that created most controversy related to the early withdrawal of investments in the company by the Minister of Finance, Ms. Karen Tesheira, seemingly after receiving privileged information about the impending collapse of CLICO. In the elections, Ms. Tesheira who was the candidate in a safe PNM stronghold seat that was never lost before was defeated as her opponent made hay out of the CLICO issue. Other issues that dealt with alleged wasteful expenditures related to two major international conferences costing about $1billion that were financed by the Manning administration. One of these included world leaders such as President Obama and the other the heads of Commonwealth countries. To put Trinidad on show, the government constructed a lavish world-class academy of performing arts also. It seemed that the Manning administration was endowed with unlimited funds even when many public services laid neglected, a fact that the PP made a large issue out during the elections.

The scandals dwarfed all other issues, but two which gained prominence related to the crime and the introduction of a countrywide property tax. On crime, the PP argued that law and order had broken down, and in polls that were taken just before the elections, the majority of citizens felt that the government had failed to provide protection and security for citizens. The second major issue relating to the introduction of a property tax generated widespread apprehension across the ethnic divide and especially among property owners. The government argued that it wanted to raise more revenues and that it must do equitably by imposing a property tax which required a survey of all private property holdings in the country. The PP made the property tax a lightning rod issue that touched on the raw nerves of nearly everyone and declared that among the very first things it would do in its gaining office was to rescind the property tax legislation. These were the non-ethnic issues, but they were underlaid by a second more subtle and covert theme dealing with ethnic and communal fears.

What role did race and ethnicity play which by itself had been often used in the past to explain patterns of voting in TT? This explanation highlights political strategy along a communal and racial calculus in directing the energies of the political campaign. Noted political scientist Professor Selwyn Ryan argued that little of race was openly said in the campaign “but it was clearly in evidence” (Ryan 2010, 13). He noted that, indirectly, the PNM as an African-based party was the historical protector of African interest and that no other party can be trusted to carry on this role. As Ryan (2010, 13) noted, “The PNM spent a great deal of time and resources reminding the masses in general and the Afro masses in particular about what it had done for them from Williams to the present and warned that the benefits were at risk if they elected some other party.” What however diminished the salience of the race factor was the absence in the elections of Basdeo Panday, the former militant leader of the Indian-based UNC party who symbolized as, no one else, the Indian community and its claims to power.

The race factor however was more visible to some observers. Jack Warner, the PP key strategist, argued that Manning had conducted a divisive racial campaign in which he denigrated Indians who would vote for an Indian leader (Ali 2010). The PP however made its multiethnic following an indicator of the change it was seeking for Trinidad’s old-style ethnically based politics. Nevertheless, ethnicity and race were more than less nuanced into the campaign discourse. Clevon Raphael, a columnist of one of the country’s major daily newspapers, The Guardian, argued that, “Basically the PNM ran a campaign of fear generously sprinkled by an appeal to the race card. The party tried to retain its natural support and capture the non-committed and even those of the PP by unjustifiably claiming that a win by its opponents would mean the scrapping of CEPEP, GATE, and the closure of COSTATT and UTT” (Raphael 2010, A27). These were all programs which had overwhelmingly benefitted the PNM’s Afro-Trinidadian supporters.

The Election Results

Regarding the election results at the constituency level, in examining all of the 41 constituencies in the 2010 elections, a number of patterns were clear (Ali 2010, A6; Fraser 2010, A28; Raphael 2010, A27). In the traditional core PNM and UNC constituencies constituting about 32 of all the seats and most voters, ethnic partisan preference substantially prevailed. This has been underscored by the startling fact that in the previous elections of 2007, when the PNM won 26 seats out of 41, it received 299,813 votes, which were merely 14,459 votes short of its 2010 numbers when it got only 12 seats. However, in the 2010 elections, there has been a major difference in that while in all the elections 1986–2007, the PNM had handily won its core constituencies, in 2010, it lost four. The shifts that have occurred have not been major. In many of the 12 that it retained, it did so with reduced support ranging from 6% to 12%, and in the 4 core constituencies that it lost, the margin of loss was not substantial from about 1% to 5% only of the votes cast. All of this is ample testimony that there has been a shift in traditional PNM votes in a number of core constituencies in which it won and lost but by overall margins that were meager to about 3–5%.

Noteworthy in this regard, in examining the performance of the UNC core constituencies in 2010 and 2007, it can be observed that the unified UNC-COP votes from 2007 accounted in many instances for up to 75% or more of the PP votes in 2010 except for the two Tobago seats and those in the PNM stronghold seats. It must be recalled that the PP divided the 41 constituencies into segments that were led by only one of its components. The UNC component was assigned all but one (St. Augustine) of its core constituencies. In these constituencies, the PNM share was not substantially reduced from 2007 to 2010. In effect, in the core PNM and UNC constituencies, the shift from one to the other in 2010 was small, and in most the percentages remained practically the same.

Regarding the marginal seats, in 2007, the PNM won all these marginals except Mayaro in compiling its acquisition of 26 seats out of 41. Because of the momentum gathered by the PP campaign, a small shift especially among Africans combined by a unified Indian vote assisted by the mixed and minority communities gave the PP substantial victories. The voting pattern in the marginals in other words did point to a small measure of change among African, mixed, and minority voters but not to a significant shift in Indian and African voting pattern. Overall, the election results portray overwhelming continuity in ethnic and racial voting patterns especially among Indians and Africans but with a small shift among Africans and mixed races that tended to exaggerate and amplify the ethnic significance of the PP landslide victory.


There were critical factors that accounted for the victory of the PP and specifically how the victory addressed the more critical issue of overcoming ethnic voter preference and ushering in a new mode of non-ethnic voting. First, we must look at the composition of the PP. In the elections, the PP had amassed a variety of groups in its coalition structure that departed from the polarized pattern of voting and the familiar campaign strategy. Despite its formal affiliation with the UNC and that its leader derived from the UNC, the PP formation was much more ethnically mixed and interclass than the PNM which was depending overwhelmingly on its African rump in its traditional strongholds to forge a victory. There was no ideological cleavage of consequence that separated the two contenders in the race even though the PP sought to emphasize its populism. Just to recapitulate the PP was composed thus of:
  1. (a)

    The old Indian-based UNC, the largest part of the PP, led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

  2. (b)

    The Congress of the People (COP) led by Winston Dookeran which broke away from the UNC to compete as a separate party beginning in the 2007 elections constituted mainly of a fairly large inter-ethnic middle-class support base.

  3. (c)

    The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), led by Daaga, was the old militant African-based urban party which had some support among Africans and the politically radical community in Trinidad.

  4. (d)

    The Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), led by Ainsley Jack, was a Tobago party.

  5. (e)

    The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), led by Afro-Creole Errol McLeod and a prominent mixed-race leader, Stephen Cadiz, was a trade union-based party.


Many environmental and women’s NGOs also aligned with the PP to constitute a broad-based multiethnic formation.

Regarding campaign strategy, nothing had changed significantly in the 2010 elections with the combination of overt non-ethnic themes and appeals and communal and racist appeals at the covert level. The election results suggest that the displacement of primordial partisan attachments by the African and Indian communities could not be dismantled in one election but seems to require multiple institutional changes. In terms of issues versus ethnic identity, it seemed that the scandals which bedeviled the PNM in power, as well as the unification of the five parties into the PP which in turn was led by a charismatic leader, persuaded minorities as well as many others traditionally supportive of the PNM to change sides. Issues did impart a special texture to the 2010 elections in literally cornering the PNM with multiple problems that included leadership style and poor performance. If the issues were the decisive factor that determined the election outcome, it was clear that the PNM should have lost even more comprehensively than it did. Rather, the PNM was able to retain a very substantial majority of its traditional supporters as well as the UNC of its Indian supporters.

What emerged as the most powerful factor in the campaign that overwhelmed the PNM was the charismatic electric flair that quickly surrounded the person of Kamla Bissessar who seemed to grow even larger as the campaign progressed (Ryan 2010, 13). It was a totally unexpected development even though Kamla Bissessar had offered intimations of her capabilities just 3 months earlier when she defeated Panday for the leadership of the UNC, but nothing of the explosiveness of Kamla Bissessar’s presence on the hustings was in anybody’s radar looking at the shape of the campaign to come. At times Kamla Bissessar seemed like a pop star on tour, while Manning displayed lackluster. The charisma and momentum that the PP evolved would spill over the entirety of the electorate with wild predictions that the PNM would be wiped out by an avalanche of support for the star-studded Kamla Bissessar-led PP list of candidates. While the PP was able to draw large crowds everywhere without much prompting, the PNM carried with it a large entourage of bus-filled supporters to its meetings to ensure that it seemed to have much popular support. This was not lost on the daily news media which covered the elections as they made some fun of the relatively lackluster PNM campaign.

In terms of factors that are often associated with a new multiethnic coalition, many of these were clearly missing. This includes most significantly agreement for power sharing among the elements that formed the winning coalition. On programmatic issues, in the political campaign, the PP had defined its position on new policies which relate to governing an inclusivist regime. That factor was to be seen in implementation of governance. No complex set of institutions and conditions, except the idea of forming a coalition structure, such as found in Lijphart’s consociational democracy were required to establish a successful multiethnic party. Many potentially outstanding problems were not evident during the victory celebration which was likely to assert themselves during the process of governing through a coalition framework. As fate would have it, during the life of the coalition government, many intragroup conflicts arose which tore the coalition structure apart so that when 5 years later the PP in a reincarnated form sought reelection, it lost to the PNM in an election that was reminiscent of the old ethnic partisan pattern.

Finally, the issue of the electoral system needs to be addressed. As we have pointed out in the introductory part of the essay, the British had bequeathed a parliamentary system under which elections were conducted under a first-past-the-post simple majority procedure. For many analysts, it is this electoral system, while not creating the original divisions, that tends to magnify the ethnic conflict in the society. Analysts such as Lijphart have advocated a system of proportional representation, while others such as Horowitz have advocated the Australian alternate preferential variant of proportional representation (Horowitz 1997). In any case, this electoral institution did not emerge as a specific issue during the 2010 elections in Trinidad. However, in any evaluation of the likelihood of the persistence of ethnic partisan politics in Trinidad and elsewhere, the type of electoral system is clearly relevant.


  1. Ali K (2010) PNM loses popular vote. Guardian, 25 May, p A6Google Scholar
  2. Anderson B (1983) Imagined communities. Verso, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. Brereton B (1979) Race relations in colonial Trinidad 1870–1900. Cambridge University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  4. Clarke C (1993) Social pattern and social interaction among Creoles and Indians in Trinidad and Tobago. In: Yelvington K (ed) Trinidad ethnicity. University of Tennessee Press, KnoxvilleGoogle Scholar
  5. Fraser T (2010) The decline and fall of Patrick Manning. Guardian, 26 May, p A28Google Scholar
  6. Grant L (2010) Trini LargesseGone Hyperactive. Sunday Express 22 May:13Google Scholar
  7. Hintzen P (1989) The costs of regime survival. Cambridge University Press, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Horowitz D (1997) Encouraging electoral accommodation in divided societies. In: Reynolds A (ed) The architecture of democracy. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  9. Lijphart A (1977) Democracy in plural societies. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  10. MacDonald SB (1986) Democracy and development in the Caribbean. Praeger, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Montville J (ed) (1990) Conflict and peacemaking in multiethnic states. Lexington Books, LexingtonGoogle Scholar
  12. Naipaul V (1962) The middle passage. Penguin Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  13. Newsday (2010) Congratulations All Around, editorial, 26 May:10Google Scholar
  14. Oxaal I (1961) Black Bourgeoisie come to power. Schenkman, Cambridge, MassachusettsGoogle Scholar
  15. Premdas R (1991) The politics of inter-ethnic accommodation. In: Premdas R, St. Cyr E (eds) Sir Arthur Lewis: an economic and political portrait. Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, JamaicaGoogle Scholar
  16. Premdas R (1992) Race, politics and succession in Trinidad and Guyana. In: Sutton P, Payne A (eds) Modern Caribbean politics. Johns Hopkins Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  17. Premdas, Ralph 2009 Trinidad and Tobago: ethnicity and inequality in public sector governance. Palgrave, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Raphael C (2010) Exciting times for T&T. Guardian, 26 May, p A27Google Scholar
  19. Ryan S (1972) Race and nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago. University of Toronto Press, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  20. Ryan S (2010) Old world and the new. Sunday Express, May 23, p 13Google Scholar
  21. Sandoval J (1983) State capitalism in a petroleum-based economy. In: Ambursley P (ed) Crisis in the Caribbean. Heinemann, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Singh R (2010) Now for the Promised Changes. Express 26 May:10Google Scholar
  23. Wood D (1968) Trinidad in transition: the years after slavery. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  24. Yelvington K (ed) (1992) Ethnicity in Trinidad. Macmillan, LondonGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of the West IndiesSt. AugustineTrinidad and Tobago

Section editors and affiliations

  • Paul Carnegie
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Asian StudiesUniversiti Brunei DarussalamGadongNegara Brunei Darussalam

Personalised recommendations