PORT OF SPAIN - Voters in Trinidad and Tobago chose not to give Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's coalition a new five-year term, opting to bring back the opposition under Keith Rowley.
People in the oil-rich, twin island nation off South America's northeastern shoulder voted Monday in elections that had the prime minister battling both the opposition -- and an upstart splinter party launched by disgraced football honcho Jack Warner.
Persad-Bissessar's main challenger was Rowley, a vulcanologist; his People's National Movement (PNM) has governed the nation more than any other since independence from Britain in 1964.
"These are not the times of milk and honey. There are difficult times ahead. We have a resilient people, particularly a large body of young people who are looking for a future from our country," the prime minister-elect said to chants of "Rowley, Rowley, Rowley" from hundreds of supporters.
Rowley assured supporters of the coalition that he intended to "govern for all of Trinidad and Tobago" and the first order of business for his cabinet was the national budget due by September 30th.
Persad-Bissessar did not concede defeat nor congratulate Rowley in a speech given at her constituency office in Siparia rather than the headquarters of her party, the United National Congress, where hundreds had gathered in anticipation of victory celebrations which quickly changed to sombre acceptance of defeat.
T&T "in good hands:" Rowley
Prior to giving his victory speech, Rowley told reporters the victory at the polls was "the beginning of another era" saying that the party had prepared itself well for governance.
"We're confident the country has been placed in good hands," he stressed.
The PNM won 23 of the 41 seats contested by some 123 candidates in the polls in what many suggest was a high voter turnout among the approximately 1.1 million electorate.
The polls were extended by one hour after heavy mid-afternoon showers caused traffic and disrupted voting, prompting elections officials to extend the deadline for voting.
Persad-Bissessar also fought the potential spoiler effect of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) launched by her one-time ally Warner.
Warner, a politically powerful lawmaker is now battling extradition to the United States after being indicted in the sweeping US probe of allegations of massive corruption at FIFA.
During voting, Rowley complained of canvassing by one of the candidates in Persad-Bissessar's coalition, alleging he sent out text messages calling on constituents to vote for him.
Persad-Bissessar said there is no expressed provision in the law about digital canvassing, but noted that "it has been a tradition that we don't openly canvass on elections day."
Respect voters' wishes
Persad-Bissessar, a 63-year-old attorney, leads the United National Congress (UNC), a party that grew out of a trade union for sugar plantation workers, mainly of Indian origin.
"We must respect the wishes of the people. They have chosen and I respect their wishes. I'm disappointed of course but we must respect the democratic process," she said.
Asked if she had any regrets, Persad-Bissessar said she had none.
"I have no regrets about how I governed the country. None. Should I have a chance I would do it (the same way) again. I am very much at peace with myself that I did my best but for some it was not good enough. And I don't regret it," she said.
Warner, 72, swept up in the FIFA scandal that has rocked the world football governing body since it broke in May, is a long-time parliament member.
He launched the ILP after Persad-Bissessar sacked him from her cabinet two years ago and has put up 21 candidates for the 41-seat House of Representatives, including himself.
Persad-Bissessar, who has been in office since 2010, continues to enjoy high popularity ratings. But she has struggled to fend off corruption allegations, concerns about violent crime and an economic contraction.
Her claims of stabilising the economy and maintaining growth despite a drop in the islands' oil and gas revenues were debunked by statistics released three days before the vote indicating the economy contracted by 1.2 per cent and unemployment increased to 3.7 per cent, with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs in the first quarter of the year.