I cannot recall so much publicity, print and electronic, over the coverage of local government elections for some time. Ads in the newspapers, on the television and radio; articles in the newspapers and commentaries on radio and television. Does this plethora of activities, not to mention the resounding presence of boom boxes assaulting our tympanic membranes, signal the deepening of our democracy (as one spinmeister asserts), the growth of our entertainment industry, or just good Trini bacchanal?
Without doubt, the tone for these elections has been set by the “mis-steps’’ of the current administration. They have led to electoral defeats in Tobago and Chaguanas West. Then there is another by-election in St Joseph to come which does not look too promising for the shrinking Partnership, induced by the departure of Jack Warner.
This exit has morphed into the birth of another party, the Independent Labour Party which comes from deep within the bowels of the UNC. Then there is the COP whose former leader promised us a “new kind of politics’’. The new COP leader is torn between office-holding and the principle of a “new kind of politics’’.
If all this excitement were not enough, the leader of the Partnership declines to enter the debate so painstakingly worked on by the Debates Commission. The result is that there will be no debate, giving life to a mini-version of Dr Eric Williams’ mathematics, one from four equals nought. Re-enter the spinmeister who explains the cop-out as another effort to deepen democracy. The words “democracy’’ and “people’’ are two of the most over-used words in politics, with the result that they have been devalued. They can be found in constitutions of countries, party constitutions, and party manifestos. Because of all the above events, we can understand why there is so much excitement surrounding these local government elections.
However, in the vast majority of countries it is the norm that local government elections play second fiddle to national elections. But do not think for a minute that they are unimportant. It was the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, who said that “All politics is local’’, meaning that “a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents’’. Politicians cannot go around talking political theory and the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. No politician can mesmerise the people with that kind of talk and get away with it except, of course, “The Doc’’, and that was only for a while.
And so today the politicians who are campaigning are taking a page from old Tip, and talking about box drains, curbwall and slipper drains, retaining walls, bridges and creating space at the car park at the crematorium etc. If that does not work out for some of us, they are also busy cleaning up the cemeteries.
The days of standpipe politics are over even if there are many who cannot boast of a good water supply.
When all is said and done, the truth is that local government elections run a distant second behind their national counterparts. Generally, national elections are held every five years except when a certain prime minister twice got a vaps and called elections before they were constitutionally due and promptly lost. Not so with local government elections which have been usually called when the spirit moves the central government.
After the first local government elections were held in 1946, a year after adult suffrage had been introduced, the elections have never been held on any regular basis.
The elections were held irregularly with gaps of three years, sometimes four, one six-year break, and two seven-year breaks, one of these being from 2003 to 2010. We are unaware if the irregularity in elections were always occasioned by the threat of electoral reform.
Two unscientific surveys in this newspaper’s Big Question are revelatory with respect to the people’s sentiments about the elections. All ten respondents (100 per cent) expressed dissatisfaction with the issues in the election campaign.
In a previous Big Question survey attempting to elicit the people’s interest in the elections, if the 60 per cent expressing interest all voted, that would be a record turnout. The data indicate that the highest turnouts in local government elections were 50 per cent in 1956 and 55.8 per cent in 1959, the heyday of Eric Williams. Otherwise percentages generally hovered around a dispiriting 26 per cent, 29 per cent, or 31 per cent.
But with councillors working feverishly on the projects of increased parking space for crematoria and cleaning up cemeteries, there could be a bumper turnout this year. But while we wait for when the time comes, could WASA or those in cahoots with the car industry fix that huge crater on the road on the north side leading to the Beetham market entrance?
• Basil Ince is a retired professor of political science