* Five parties unite to challenge ruling PNM party
* Opposition grouping seeks to cut across ethnic lines
* Energy-based economy jolted by global recession
By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
FYZABAD, Trinidad and Tobago, April 22 Five
opposition parties in Caribbean gas and oil producer Trinidad
and Tobago have signed a unity pact that seeks multi-ethnic
support to challenge Prime Minister Patrick Manning's ruling
People's National Movement (PNM) in May 24 general elections.
The "People's Partnership" -- uniting opposition leader
Kamla Persad-Bissessar's United National Congress (UNC) with
the Congress of the People (COP) and three other small parties
-- was launched late on Wednesday by Persad-Bissessar before
thousands of supporters in the southern town of Fyzabad.
"We are now united in a common purpose as we go forward to
forge a new day, a brave new world for Trinidad and Tobago,"
Persad-Bissessar, 58, the opposition's prime ministerial
candidate, told supporters who waved flags and banners.
The opposition grouping seeks to cut across the former
British colony's main mix of Afro-Trinidadians and
Indo-Trinidadians who traditionally vote along ethnic lines. It
will also look to capitalize on popular discontent fueled by
the impact of the global downturn on the local economy.
The twin-island state, which lies off Venezuela and is
known for its Caribbean calypsos, steel bands and annual
carnival, is one of the world's top exporters of liquefied
natural gas (LNG) and a leading supplier of LNG to the United
States. But the energy-dependent economy has been buffeted by
the effects of the international recession.
Manning, 64, who has ruled Trinidad and Tobago for 13 of
the past 17 years, earlier this month dissolved parliament
midway through his administration's five-term term. He
comfortably won re-election in a November 2007 vote.
But his ruling party faces opposition accusations of
corruption and that it has squandered energy wealth on
high-profile international summits instead of concentrating on
providing better services and more jobs for ordinary people.
'EAT WHAT THE DEVIL KNEADS'
Manning dismissed the challenge of the diverse opposition
grouping, saying that political infighting would undermine its
ability to deliver on its promises to the electorate.
"They talk unity but they don't stand for the policies of
unity ... and if you vote for them, you eat what the devil
kneads," he told supporters late on Wednesday.
Analysts said the opposition coalition faced a tough task
to form an effective unified force in Trinidad's traditionally
fractious and ethnically diverse politics.
"It can only be sustainable if there is an element of trust
and compromise and if the public is convinced that they have
the credibility and competence to restructure the governance of
the country," political analyst Derek Ramsamooj told Reuters.
"We will respect every one of our partners. We must live
with unity in diversity," said UNC leader Persad-Bissessar, who
served as the country's first female attorney general in 1995.
Besides the COP led by former Central Bank Governor Winston
Dookeran, which has support in the large middle class, the
unified opposition accord includes the small National Joint
Action Committee, the Tobago Organisation of the People and the
Movement for Social Justice.
Trinidad and Tobago's central bank says the country's gross
domestic product (GDP) contracted by 3.2 percent last year, a
much larger decline than the originally forecast 1.5 to 2
percent. It was the country's first annual decline in GDP in 16
In 2008, real GDP grew by 3.5 percent. The central bank is
forecasting 2 percent growth this year.
Manning's government and energy experts have expressed
concern that a decline in natural gas reserves could threaten
future economic growth prospects and the government is seeking
investment partners to explore for new energy reserves.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham)