Prime Minister Keith Rowley predicted victory for his ruling People’s National Movement in Trinidad and Tobago’s general election Monday, with turnout strong despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Scores of voters remained in line waiting to cast their ballots as polls closed but officials have said they will be allowed to vote.
Rowley urged supporters to stay away from the PNM party’s headquarters when celebrating.
“We do not want a good election campaign to be spoiled by large gatherings which can cause the spread of the virus,” Rowley said after voting.
“Celebrate in small groups at a friend’s home, as I know there will be reason to celebrate, but we must be responsible at all times.”
In the most recent opinion poll in the island nation off Venezuela, the PNM was five percentage points ahead of the opposition United National Congress (UNC), led by former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
After casting her ballot, Persad-Bissessar urged voters not to be deterred by long queues and a process slowed by health safety measures.
“In some stations they are saying it is very slow,” she said.
“The feedback I am getting is that in some stations the turnout is very high but some people are turning back because of long lines. I just urge everyone: do your civic duty, cast your vote.”
First results are due late Monday.
For many of the one million voters, the coronavirus pandemic and corruption were two key issues on the campaign trail.
Rowley, in power since 2015, announced on Wednesday the closure of all primary schools after several pupils were infected.
But facemasks were not compulsory in ballot stations on voting day.
Rowley praised his party’s campaign in difficult circumstances caused by coronavirus restrictions.
“Every election is important but I think this election is particularly important because it heralds a period… that is difficult for the country,” he said.
– Voting along ethnic lines –
The twin-island republic is a first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy modeled on former colonial power Britain.
Polls opened at 6:00 am with social distancing and hand sanitizing measures in place, and closed 12 hours later.
Voters will elect the 41 members of the House of Representatives with the winning party’s leader becoming prime minister.
Among the candidates standing for seats is disgraced former FIFA vice president Austin “Jack” Warner, who is battling extradition to the United States to face charges of racketeering and conspiracy as part of a global graft probe into world football’s governing body.
He is one of 17 single candidates from separate political parties contesting the polls alongside the two main parties.
In total, there are 146 candidates from 19 political parties, some 30% of whom are women.
All but one of the 41 seats in the 2015 election were won by either the PNM or UNC. The PNM ousted the UNC in 2015 by 23 seats to 17.
Coronavirus cases have been increasing in the build-up to the election, with 67 people testing positive in the last two weeks.
Rowley has promised not to re-impose lockdown measures but has said bars and restaurants could be closed to prevent the virus spreading.
Many blame the new cases on the illegal trafficking of economic migrants from Venezuela. However, no Venezuelan national has been confirmed as positive among the new COVID-19 cases.
The government has received praise regionally and internationally for its handling of the pandemic which has helped it enjoy a high approval rating.
But in diverse Trinidad and Tobago, politics remains largely divided along ethnic lines. The majority of PNM supporters are of African descent with the UNC popular among those of a South Asian background.