The COVID-19 pandemic is playing an outsized role in the lead up to Trinidad and Tobago’s (TT) general elections. Considering the virus is at the center of the campaign rhetoric of each political party and was used to justify the exclusion of international election observers, it may be a deciding factor on August 10.
On July 9, Prime Minister Keith Rowley of the People’s National Movement (PNM) wrote to Secretary-Generals Patricia Scotland of the Commonwealth of Nations and Irwin LaRocque of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to request observer missions. In his letter, Rowley indicated that members of any observer mission will need to comply with TT’s 14-day quarantine before they could perform their duties. In addition, he noted that his government could not bear the cost of transporting and lodging the observer missions, stating it would be seen as a “conflict of interest.”
As a result of Rowley’s conditions, and given the deadline passed for the missions to arrive in time to complete the 14-day quarantine, no international election observer missions will be present. This raised suspicion from TT’s opposition parties, notably opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar of the United National Congress (UNC)—who told Rowley to request the presence of electoral missions. Since learning there won’t be any missions observing the elections, Persad-Bissessar openly stated that this was an attempt by the incumbent to avoid scrutiny and steal the election.
Other opposition parties, such as the Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP), also criticized the lack of international observer missions. They sought to undermine the conditions set by Rowley, calling on the President of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), Paula-Mae Weekes, to postpone the elections. This would allow for the international missions to travel to the country and give the TT government time to curb a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.
In response, Weekes argued that while there was an increase in COVID-19 cases, it would take both a dramatic surge as well as government authorization to postpone the elections. At the time of writing, TT’s COVID-19 cases remain below 200. The government assures that the recent surge is a consequence of imported cases, resulting in “clustered spreads,” not “community spreading.”
It is unlikely that Rowley would initiate or support postponing the general election on August 10, as both him and the PNM benefit from holding the election at its set date. Recent polls from the North American Caribbean Teachers Association (NACTA) and Solution by Simulation (SBS) suggests that, although the UNC is within striking distance, the PNM will maintain previously held constituency seats. They will also have an estimated five percent lead on their counterpart, including crucial seats located in Tobago island.
This does not mean Rowley has not acknowledged the surge in cases. On the contrary, he used the surge to his advantage. As the incumbent Prime Minister, Rowley already established his administration’s capabilities in addressing COVID-19 by immediately shutting national borders, curbing the initial spread of cases. Thus, his decision to move forward with the elections is legitimized by his past COVID-19 protocols. At the same time, Rowley’s decision to decrease congregation numbers for crowds from 25 to 10, as a result of the small surge in COVID-19 cases, handicapped campaign rallies for opposition parties, like the UNC—a legitimate threat to Rowley’s chance at victory—to win over undecided voters.
Although TT properly addressed the public health concerns surrounding COVID-19, Rowley, Persad-Bissessar, and their respective parties, are guilty of politicizing the pandemic to serve their political interests. Rowley subtly used the pandemic’s effects in contradictory ways: firstly, by imposing social distancing measures that undermine the efforts of opposition parties’ to campaign fairly and widely; secondly, by arguing that COVID-19 did not spread enough to infect voters at the polls. Opposition parties also argued that while he did not allow for the repatriation of TT citizens, he agreed to host the Caribbean Premier League starting on August 18—an event that could see more than 100 foreign nationals enter the country.
On the other hand, Persad-Bissessar, is accused of not communicating the seriousness of the pandemic to her party’s supporters. Rowley’s criticism of Persad-Bissessar for not wearing a mask during campaign rallies is warranted, and if she were to win the general election, it would set a dangerous precedent. Persad-Bissessar also argued that masks should not be mandatory at polling places, launching accusatory remarks at the EBC, claiming that they will openly discriminate against UNC supporters who show coronavirus symptoms on election day.
Nevertheless, the gravest politicization of COVID-19 has been Rowley’s irresponsibility in letting the virus prevent international election observer missions from being present for the general elections. At minimum, a CARICOM observer team should be present. Rowley would only need to look to its CARICOM neighbors to see the usefulness of having such missions present. For example, Guyana and St. Kitts and Nevis, where the former used election observer reports to support a credible national recount; and the lack of missions in the latter saw the losing party issue six election petitions, claiming electoral fraud. Not only do these election missions add a layer of legitimacy to election results, it also serves as protection against political instability if a losing party were to reject the outcome.
Rowley should understand that national elections, especially in the Americas, are no longer only a domestic affair. International election monitoring in the Americas became a norm institutionalized in recent decades. Rowley and Persad-Bissessar are guilty of politicizing COVID-19, but it will be the Prime Minister’s disregard of the importance of election monitoring that will have the worst effects. If he and the PNM win the election, the lack of observers would set the foundation for opposition parties to claim fraud. After all, they are on the record as having requested electoral missions before Rowley wrote to organizations abroad.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS.