By Raffique Shah
December 10, 2019
Exactly one month before last Monday’s local government elections, I wrote in this space, inter alia: “…The PNM will face the December 2 elections at its most vulnerable point since winning the general election of 2015. Under its watch, thousands of workers have lost their jobs, most notably the 4,000 or so who were employed at the State-owned oil giant Petrotrin, but also other private sector employees who were retrenched amidst continuing economic stagnation. Serious crimes continue unabated, people are dissatisfied with the public health services and the availability of adequate potable water, many roads are in a woeful state, and so on…
“…the UNC should therefore be well-positioned to capture control of key marginal and near-marginal regional corporations such as Sangre Grande and Tunapuna/Piarco. It should also make inroads in other corporations, which would give the opposition party a fillip as it gears for next year’s general election…
“…In local government elections in which many electoral districts are won with totals ranging between 1,000 and 3,000 votes, think of the impact 500 such voters can have in two or three districts in a similar number of closely-contested regional corporations…
“…But I do not sense that shift in fortunes that would signal that the opposition is ready to re-capture power. There is no visible swing, not even vociferous expressions of discontent that usher in dramatic changes in the political landscape…”
Now, I lay no claim to being a political pundit, scientist or pollster as many university lecturers and professors do. I rely on many years’ experience monitoring local politics, reading between the message-lines that emanate from platform rhetoric and the realities on the ground, and raw instinct that one develops once one does not allow oneself to be sidetracked by occurrences that are temporary or transitional in nature.
Long before the final tallies were telecast (I went to bed at 10 p.m.), it was clear that the opposition United National Congress had made considerable gains in electoral districts, regional corporations and municipalities where it mattered most, and that the ruling People’s National Movement had suffered some body-blows that wounded its pride if not its body politic.
Predictably, the UNC claimed a resounding victory, which was valid only when compared with the series of losses it suffered post-2013 and the heady days of “Kamlamania” that had begun when Kamla Persad-Bissessar mauled Basdeo Panday and captured leadership of the UNC in January 2010. Yes, she can be proud of the party’s gains, winning the popular vote (202,584, 54.38 percent of votes cast) against the PNM’s 161,962, 43.48 percent. Capturing the Sangre Grande regional corporation 5-3 must have been sweet revenge for losing control in 2016 despite a 4-4 draw.
As I had projected in my periscope on the elections, the PNM lost a number of other electoral districts to the UNC, primarily in San Fernando (fallout from the closure of Petrotrin) and Tunapuna/Piarco. The turnout, which was marginally more than the 34.4 percent of the electorate, should have hardly surprised anyone, not even the foot-soldiers of the parties that contested the elections. Only when there was a tidal wave of opposition to the dominant PNM, most recently in July 2010, did the turnout for local elections nudge close to 40 percent—39.1% in that year.
Readers should note too that in the 2010 local government elections, the People’s Partnership trounced the PNM in 11 of 14 corporations/municipalities, leaving the latter in control of only Port of Spain (8-4), Pt Fortin (5-1) and San Juan/Laventille (8-5). The PP swept San Fernando (7-2), Arima (6-1-only Anthony Garcia remained standing) and PNM bastions such as Diego Martin (7-3) and Tunapuna/Piarco (11-4) fell like ninepins.
The electorate was angry with Patrick Manning and the PNM. They showed it emphatically, as they had done in 1986 when the broad-based National Alliance for Reconstruction almost wiped the PNM off the map with an astounding 36-2 win. In both instances—Manning in 2010 and George Chambers in 1986—the leaders, usually humble souls, had acquired hubris that proved to be the straw that broke the PNM’s back.
There are lessons to be learnt from those experiences and last Monday’s results, and one would think that the incumbents in government and opposition will draw on them as they both face a do-or-die year ahead.
But politicians, like children, can be “harden”, stubborn and unyielding to the mood of the electorate.
Prime Minister Keith Rowley, for example, must realise by now that his grandiose plan for the development of East and North-East Trinidad will yield little by way of economic transformation, and lesser in votes. No one will disagree with upgrading the principal roads to Toco and Manzanillla-Mayaro. But an international port at Toco is as unnecessary and financially burdensome on the populace as Mr Manning’s industrial island off Otaheite was doomed to be, not to add the “10 smelters” he threatened in anger.
The PM can take credit for reducing the outrageous budgetary expenditure that the UNC had incurred and for radically reversing the oil industry from a wasteful operation to a profitable enterprise-if he can get the refinery up and running and adding foreign exchange to the Treasury before the general election. Little things like repairing potholes, clearing clogged watercourses, completing and distributing hundreds of HDC housing units that are lying idle won’t hurt.
In Kamla and the UNC’s case, wiping the smirk off the faces off their frontline personnel will be a good start. The results of the LGE, while encouraging, are far from the comfort zone of a general election victory. They have much to do to convince the electors who matter, the swing voters who decide the marginals, that they can be trusted with power ever again.
Simple equations, complex solutions.