The Prime Minister is sharing trousers with a white-fronted Capuchin while we, the population, yelp about the possible postponement of local government elections. I have to say—and it is an unpopular view, I know—that in this particular stand-off, the PM’s is the more sympathetic side.
The PM has presided over a UNC-heavy coalition that was emphatically swept out of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) just the other day there, in January. The Tobago Organisation of the People suffered defeat as a result of its membership in the People’s Partnerhsip.
Then, six months later, a constituency in the UNC motherland, Chaguanas West, gave the UNC just over 5,000 of their 18,000 or so votes.
Which political leader will voluntarily return to the polls two months later knowing that she will lose, and knowing too that losing means an undeniable loss of confidence in her Government and early general elections? The grim context is that it’s becoming more and more difficult for a Government to retain office for a full five-year term. General elections were held in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007 and then 2010; the 2002-2007 period is an anomaly there.
I don’t think the Prime Minister is being dishonest when she says that UNC councillors asked that the local government election be postponed. Granted the terms of the councillors have expired, and what do we care about what the councillors think anyway? The local election is not about them; it’s the business of the whole population so councillors can’t call that shot.
Except by “councillors” the PM really meant UNC foot soldiers. And they’re despondent, tired and unhappy.
Despondent because they worked hard in hot sun and some rain on the ground in Chaguanas West and their party was resoundingly rejected; tired from a bruising fight; and unhappy because they have not seen rewards from the elevation into Government of their party. The UNC grassroots feel they were deprived under successive PNM administrations and now they are further deprived because they have not benefitted tangibly from putting their leaders on the Government side of the Parliament.
Call a local government election, then, and who would do the work on the ground? The PM can’t be everywhere; Chaguanas West burned her energy and may burn her effigy too. UNC MPs are not likely to encounter favour when they canvass, and members of the Cabinet, well, their Prados and security details wouldn’t be warmly welcomed even if they were able to canvass the length and breadth of Trinidad.
What then is the PM to do, having said over and over that the election will be held when constitutionally due?
There is no wiggle room in those white-fronted Capuchin trousers.
Meanwhile, the population insists the PM must keep her word, abide by the constitution, and set a date, so desirous are we to rest another defeat on they tail and let them know what time it is.
What we cannot say with a straight face, though, is that we are interested in local government election beyond using it as an instrument to speak truth to governments. There is hypocrisy here that we must acknowledge: all this call-the-election talk is not about local government election per se.
In the 1946 county council elections (all data are from the Election and Boundaries Commission records), 36.8 per cent of those eligible voted (the full list of registered voters was a mere 189,351); in 1953, 47 per cent, and in 1956, 50.2 per cent. In 1968, after Independence, when one might have thought the small population would have been excited to cast votes, 8,790 people out of 35,594 voted; in 1971, just over 1,000 out of 4,881 cast ballots; and in 1977, 6,126 out of 22,987 voted.
The decade of the 80s saw little change: 1980—16,018 out of 54,388 voted; 1981—35,795 out of 115,919; and in 1987—47,436 out of 118,688 exercised their franchise at the local government level.
The nineties saw no significant shift except in the size of those eligible to vote: 1992—307,945 out of 774,223 voted; 1996—359,070 voted out of 815,809; and in 1999, there was a 38.7 per cent voter turnout.
Again, no change in the noughties: there was a 37.9 per cent voter turnout in 2003 and 39.1 per cent in 2010, the year of People’s Partnership euphoria when the list of eligible voters was a staggering 998,809.
So, evidently, not many of us are interested enough in local government elections to get up, dress up and show up at the polling stations. Let’s be honest about that when we yell, “Call the election!”
Essentially, we want the election because the Government does not want it. We want it so we can, through those who actually vote, send a message to today’s administration that we do not like you and we do not want you.
Local government elections are supposed to be held in three-year cycles which mean they usually occur mid-term within five-year government cycles. As such, the election is used as a referendum on the incumbent’s political favourability. We can continue to call for the election to be held on time, but let’s be forthright about why we want it.
Columnist’s note: It’s a pleasure and an honour to return this column to Express readers. My thanks to the Express for accommodating it.