By Raffique Shah
May 30, 2023
Not for the first time in its 67-year history, the People’s National Movement goes into a local government election as the underdog. In 2019, as I recall it, the main opposition United National Congress, and some other parties with which it had forged alliances of sorts, seemed confident they would flog the PNM in the wake of a sluggish national economy, job cuts and its failure to secure support for local government reforms that intended to increase the powers of the municipal corporations.
The opposition parties intensified their campaigns against the property tax, sensing that would broaden their support base, and proceeded to oppose just about every bill the ruling party took to Parliament. When the local government election was held in early December 2019, the PNM lost ground but retained much control of key corporations. The UNC won the popular vote by polling 202,584 votes, while the PNM polled 161,962 votes. The four-per cent swing in favour of the UNC did not give them any major gains in terms of corporations. What it did, however, was have a visual impact on those who looked at the map of Trinidad. The UNC yellow appears overwhelming, leaving just pockets on the western coast of the island in red and the north-west of the country PNM-controlled.
To the UNC supporters, their control of large swathes of the country gives them a sense of power, while at the same time denying them real power. I should note here that the two Tobago seats that the PNM won to give them the edge in 2020 may well have dissipated in the fog of the Tobago House of Assembly election in 2022.
In a bizarre twist, Tobagonians went to the polls three times in less than six months and the PNM moved from control of the THA to a lone seat in the now 14-member Assembly. That astounding development injected new life into the opposition parties, especially the UNC and Watson Duke’s PDP. But if astounding electoral results in those elections set the PNM up for what might have been seen as the perfect fall from power and from grace, even more bizarre developments would follow. Some may say predictably, Farley Augustine, the man who was the face of the PDP as Watson played king-maker, stole everything but the party’s name from Duke. That was good news for the PNM. The party has always held itself out as being the most stable political organisation in the country. Indeed its founder, Dr Eric Williams, used to look his opponents over the years in their faces and ask: if not the PNM, then what? Chaos?
So, while the opposition parties are licking their chops in anticipation of defeating the PNM, not only in the local government election due sometime in August, they would do well to trim their weekly theatrics and seriously approach the issue of power. When they voted against the local government electoral reform bill, that could be seen as a classic case of cutting their noses to spoil their faces. The reforms proposed, had they been implemented, would have left enhanced councils and councillors in charge of their own local affairs. That will have meant, too, being in control of much more money obtained from burgesses through taxation, service provisions and like contributors to their coffers. They won’t have that now.
I note, too, that two UNC councillors have resigned and distanced themselves from the party. Ordinarily that is insignificant, but in the high-tension mode the UNC has placed the upcoming local election, such moves could trigger more seismic movements on both sides of the fence. Defeating the PNM in the local election could give the UNC greater traction as we await a general election in 2025. However, over the years we have learnt that the PNM has an election machinery second to none and when it gains traction, it’s not easy to unseat them.
In 1986, a 33-3 defeat at the hands of the biggest broad-based opposition we had ever seen in this country, the NAR, left them for dead. The PNM would be defeated in 2002 and 2007 by the UNC, but it always arose before it turned into ashes to be the most powerful political force the country has known. Kindergarten politicians who think they can unseat the PNM by hounding its parliamentarians have never seen the party’s grassroots activists in full attack mode. It’s not a sight for foot-sore foot-soldiers of an opposition that seems to have waged war for far too many years to retain the conditioning required for protracted warfare.
As the build-up to the local election intensifies, all parties would do well to tone down their war cries and personal attacks and just stick with the issues. The informed citizens whose votes are critical to make the difference between a “win and loss” will expect the leaders and spokespersons for all parties to behave with some class and decorum.