Trinidad's ruling party faces strong opposition in elections

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — Carol St. John was preparing to leave Trinidad after her annual vacation when Prime Minister Patrick Manning dropped a bombshell: New elections will be held in six weeks, 2 1/2 years ahead of schedule.

"After he called the election, I canceled my return to London," said St. John, who has lived abroad for 40 years. "I'm staying until after the election so I could vote."

Manning may need St. John's vote now more than ever. His ruling People's National Movement, which has dominated politics in this oil- and gas-rich southern Caribbean nation for a half-century, faces a major battle to retain power.

The political landscape has shifted dramatically in the 2 1/2 years since Manning won a second five-year term. The often-fractured opposition, consisting of about a half-dozen disparate parties, has united under a "People's Coalition." Its charismatic leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, shocked the political establishment earlier this year by defeating her one-time mentor Basdeo Panday to become head of the main opposition United National Congress.

Persad-Bissessar, 58, the first woman to lead a major political party here, would become the country's first female prime minister if the coalition wins the May 24 poll.

The outcome is being watched closely well beyond Trinidad because the country's oil wealth has allowed it to play a leadership role in the Caribbean. While Trinidad's ideological ties to the United States are unlikely to change, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may breathe a sigh of relief if Manning loses. The two have bumped heads over his petrocaribe program that diminished Trinidad's role in providing oil to Caribbean countries.

Foreign policy has gotten little attention in the campaign, which has been dominated by domestic issues that have put Manning on the defensive: corruption allegations involving friends, his extraordinary spending on buildings that have transformed the capital's skyline, two high-profile summits that brought President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II to Trinidad and the deportation of a Florida political consultant advising the opposition.

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