Prior to 2010 the last time the PNM lost a local government election was in 1987 and significantly this was following their resounding defeat mere months before in the general election. In July 2010 the election fever was at a high in favour of the People’s Partnership. Even so, the results showed that of the 998,787 people registered as voters with the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) only 386,830 persons voted.
The EBC has stated that local government elections usually register a low turnout. Indicative of that is that in 2003, the last local government elections preceding the 2010 elections (the PNM had postponed the elections from 2006-2009), the turnout was 38 per cent and in 2010, even with the Partnership high, that percentage only increased by .7 per cent. It will be interesting to see whether in this election, given all the hype surrounding it, that percentage will increase.
Electors appear not to believe that the local government elections are of any real import. The results however do serve as a gauge of how the political parties are faring in the minds of the public. This is the first time that I can recall that there will be a third party (and here I consider the UNC and COP as one party, the People’s Partnership) contesting against the established two parties in almost all, if not all, the 130-odd electoral districts. If nothing else the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) has certainly infused this local government election with the flavour of a general election.
The campaigning by all of the parties has also been of that ilk. Apart from full-page ads in the various media we are treated daily to hours-long paid political broadcasts on television and radio. The meetings themselves resound to the beat of local as well as other music and the political rhetoric is in full flight. Name-calling and accusations abound left, right and centre and all seem to be having a grand old time. Yes, it is almost like a general election.
Each political party has something to gain or lose in this election. In 2010 Keith Rowley easily acknowledged that the local election, coming two months after the PNM loss in the general, represented a “comprehensive defeat” and suggested that with rebuilding the party would rebound. Kamla Persad-Bissessar could explain the relatively low turnout (given her party’s high at the time) as reflective of the fact that the Opposition supporters “stayed away”, meaning that those who made up the 38 per cent were primarily Partnership supporters. If the voter turnout this round is similarly low how will this be explained?
Certainly it would mean that Jack Warner would have failed to garner meaningful support and shift the base of support from the Partnership or the PNM. It would also reflect on the Partnership in that it would mean that their supporters of 2010 have either lost faith or would not have heeded their clarion call of “performance beating ole talk”. For the PNM it would mean that, the THA election apart, they have failed to win an election since 2007 and the party faithful have little confidence in the party. Overall it could reflect a country’s disillusionment with the current offerings at the polls.
In either case, better turnout or not, this local government election could provide an indicator of how the parties will fare in the St Joseph parliamentary by-election. The losers must take stock since a win will enhance the chances of that party in the 2015 general election, not just by energising the party but also through the ricochet effect on the psyche of the population. Everyone loves a winner and that’s why Jack Warner was the flavour of the month for weeks after winning the Chaguanas West by-election in July.
Each party must be aware that voting is now fluid. Since 1986 there are few safe seats and the silent majority has been speaking volumes at our elections.
Take for example the 2010 local government election, albeit with a 38.7 per cent turnout. In this election the Partnership took 11 of the 14 corporations. There was a shift in six of the corporations from the PNM to the Partnership. San Fernando which had been a PNM stronghold following the 2003 elections which they won handsomely 8-1 shifted 7-1 in favour of the Partnership. Arima went Partnership with 6-1 electoral districts won by the Partnership. Diego Martin, which had been a PNM stronghold, and which houses three of the current PNM MPs, switched to the Partnership at 7-3.
Sangre Grande, Siparia and Tunapuna/Piarco all went yellow with the Partnership. In fact, in the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation the Partnership duplicated its national control of the corporations: 11-3. In some corporations the PNM appeared to be “wiped out” as Winston Peters termed it in respect of Mayaro/Rio Claro which the Partnership won 6-0. Similarly zero results to the PNM were reflected in the Penal/Debe, Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo and Princes Town corporations.
The Partnership, still comprising both the UNC and COP, a combination it boasted is a winning formula (in Trinidad, if not Tobago) will be hoping to show the other parties it still has widespread appeal and can command, if not the same number of corporations, at least the majority. The ILP may not realistically expect to win in this, their first foray, but will be using this as a testing ground, I imagine, as to whether they have a national following. The PNM on the other hand must also be hoping to benefit from a split vote between the Partnership and the ILP. The party needs to win not only to show that it now has the upper hand and can form a government in 2015, but also to validate its leader.
This local government election may well be called the “mother of all” of local government elections.
• Dana S Seetahal is a
former independent senator