On Friday, November will open with its traditional regard for the deceased. After the local government elections certain political parties and political careers will be listed among the “dearly departed”. Tied at 4-4-4, all eyes are on the borough of Chaguanas. But in the language of “whe whe”, that is Dead Man, by three: the PM killed any UNC-ILP deal early; the PNM’s reversal of its win alone, lose alone policy is dead; and the ILP’s Chaguanas dominance is dead. After St Joseph, the political body count will grow.
The latest poll commissioned by the Express fashions a battle for the St Joseph constituency between the confident PNM and the bemused UNC. One keen observer has noted that ILP advertising has been reduced and the poll provides justification for that. Through both the Chaguanas West by-election and the local government elections the UNC and ILP aimed their ammunition at each other, leaving the PNM to feast in the local government polls. In St Joseph every vote will count and the UNC must either finally engage the PNM or lose.
The PNM is clearly riding Dr Rowley’s message of “new management” as the party and Dr Rowley attempt to distance themselves from the party’s record in office. The PNM’s performance in the THA elections and these local government elections will boost confidence and a win in St Joseph will put another cog into the party’s corridor machinery after two major losses in 2010.
In the 2010 local government elections 134 electoral districts were up for grabs for the first time since the local government elections of 2003. The PNM had successfully postponed the polls for seven years. On election day 2010 271 candidates contested 132 electoral districts. The candidates in the other two districts were unopposed. The PNM contested all 132 districts, the UNC 82 and the COP 50. By election night 2010 the UNC had the highest success rate with 74 winners, the COP 24, and the PNM 36.
By comparison, in 2013 the PNM more than doubled the number of electoral districts it won in 2010. More importantly, those wins gave the PNM control of more corporations and the lion’s share of aldermen allocated under the so-called proportional representation system hurriedly pushed through Parliament by the People’s Partnership, even though it remains clear that the proposal and the effect were not well understood by those who advocated it. Now the PNM controls nine corporations, the UNC four, and Chaguanas remains a dead-heat at 4-4-4.
Academics and analysts may ponder on margins, turnouts and percentage gains, but in politics parties and their candidates want to win. They have little regard for the margin of victory. There’s a big difference between a one-vote win and a one-vote loss, so a win is a win. Until 2013, every local government poll except the one for 1996 produced a voter turnout under 40 per cent. Even the excitement of the Alliance accommodation in 1983 and the NAR “One Love” of 1987 failed to produce larger turnouts at local government elections.
No party, party of parties, coalition or partnership has managed to entice voters to leave their homes in droves and line up to vote in these box drain and pothole polls. And so analysts reading what they thought was a 26 per cent turnout in 2013 as a sign of disgust or dissatisfaction may have been reading too much into the numbers and may have missed a more potent reason for low turnouts: not many people really care.
Local elections are too centred on political leaders, the incumbent Government, and national issues, and do not have much for regional, localised, town and village issues. And, with the domination of the local government elections by national parties, regional or community interest and participation have been dampened. Reform, not more positive campaigns and better candidates may increase the interest and turnouts at local government elections, especially if these reforms make local government more powerful and meaningful, and increase the participation by community-based groups in local government.
We are playing around with an important element of our democracy, and assume that negative campaigning and poor candidate selection cause “low” turnout. The data on its face shows otherwise. As negative campaigning becomes more visible to more people, the voter turnout has not necessarily gone down. And at the lowest points in voter turnout there is no evidence of particularly negative campaigning or poor candidate selection. In fact, there is little evidence that negative campaigning has increased.
It may just be that technology, more media streams, the proliferation of videos, more talk shows, and social media are now better placed to capture and disseminate “negative” messages.
Perhaps this is the lesson for the parties and candidates, especially in St Joseph on Monday. Campaign platforms and elections advertising do not zero in on the effect voting itself can have on outcomes.
In several of the local government election races an additional turnout of 250 voters could have had a remarkable effect on the final results. But, candidates and their parties are too focused on contesting a “national” mandate in municipal elections and generating headlines and scoring points at mass rallies, that they under-resource the drive at the local level to convince voters to come out, vote and likely make a big difference to the outcomes.
The poll commissioned by the Express for St Joseph pointed to a dead-heat. But, with the local government “bounce” the PNM is alive and so is the UNC with its “Government” advantage. One will win St Joseph. For the UNC a win is critical because if the party loses St Joseph, the candle could cost more than the funeral.
(For my daughter Janae-Mari and niece Arielle. Happy birthday girls.)
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer