Message from Trinidad Bye-Elections

Message from Trinidad Bye-Elections

Bye-elections were held last Monday for two local government seats in Trinidad that fell vacant following the deaths of the representatives. The voters sent a clear message to the parties to pay heed to them. The opposition UNC wrested one swing constituency (Barataria) while the ruling PNM retained the safe Belmont East seat in its traditional base.  Both PNM and UNC are claiming victory and bragging rights in the two bye-election seats. The truth is neither party has much to celebrate. And the outcome has implications for both parties as there was limited cross over racial appeal.

The PNM lost ground and “its voters loss” should be a serious cause of concern to its leadership. With a government so unpopular (only 27% favorable rating), the UNC should have won by a landslide; instead it narrowly won by 2%. The newly formed mini Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP) with its new politics was also rejected. All three need to engage in serious self-appraisal and introspection.

The PNM’s base support remained largely intact. It lost support from among Indians who felt they discriminated against and neglected even though a significant percentage voted PNM in 2015 and 2016. The PNM did not reach out to them. The PNM’s support suffered primarily to a downturn in the economy, poor governance, corruption, arrogance, increased taxes, rising fuel prices, among other factors. People are concerned about bread and butter issues. The UNC increased its voter support because of a lack of a winnable alternative. The UNC remains tarnished by the poor record of some political figures in its 2010-15 government. So some UNC supporters stayed home or cast ballots for the newcomer party PEP. But the large majority of voters felt the mini-PEP is not ready for serious politics; it needs ground work and alliance building. It is a wake-up call for the two major parties in their preparation for next year’s local and the 2020 general elections. The PNM, in particular, needs to study what went wrong when it did so well in 2016. Could the outcome be a trend for 2019 and 2020? There are a lot of political ostriches that feel all is well with the country when the population has been telling the PNM the opposite over the last two years.

The executives of both major parties are doing themselves a disservice boasting about their electoral prospects. Monday’s outcome has not solidified the base of either party. Although the UNC made gains in both seats over the 2016 results, it was more an anti-PNM rather than a pro-UNC vote. Voters were telling interviewers of NACTA tracking opinion polls that they were dissatisfied with PNM governance at both the national and local levels. A lot of voters said they were fed up of the arrogance of PNM officials that borders that of UNC officials when that party ran the government between 2010 and 2015. Constituents could not get an appointment with them to raise issues. And worse, as under the UNC, some PNM officials won’t get out of their air-conditioned vehicles. Constituents complained that they have not been serviced since the passing of two most likeable representatives (Pernell Bruno and Darryl Rajpaul) of the constituencies. And with the passing of the Councilors, 12 months and 8 months respectively, representation was virtually non-existent for that duration of time. So voters wanted to send an unambiguous message to the PNM about its “poor governance” and their neglect withholding their votes or casting ballots against it.

Voters were/are also angry with the ruling PNM for the long period of time it took to call bye-elections after the death of the representatives who were from the ruling party. The PNM faced no threat of losing the seats. Yet, it opted to establish a record (in the Commonwealth if not globally) for the longest period of time an incumbent party took to call bye-elections after the death of representatives – one year for Barataria and eight months for Belmont East.  In democratic countries, bye-elections are usually announced within a month of the passing or resignation of a representative. No valid reason was presented for the delay in bye elections. Had the bye-elections been held immediately after the death of the Councilors, PNM would have won on a wave of sympathy wave. Both deceased councilors were most popular in their constituencies. Bruno (Barataria) won the seat with 58% of the votes cast in 2016 while Rajpaul won with 93% of votes cast. The PNM saw its support dropped to 48% and 70% respectively – a significant drop.

The overall voting in the polling divisions suggests that PNM supporters did not come out in their full force as they did in 2016 – probably because PNM was not at risk of losing the San Juan Laventille (Barataria) or Port of Spain (Belmont) Corporations. The numbers also reveal the UNC made gains in every polling division while the PNM saw a decrease in support. In fact, in Barataria, the UNC won in PDs it never did before. There was also an increase in turnout in Barataria in favor of UNC.

The Muslim factor played a critical factor in PNM’s defeat. Last February’s raid of the mosque and resulting violence, hurt the PNM. Mohammedville and El Socoro that went PNM in 2016 went for UNC this time around. Without this cross over, UNC would have found it difficult to wrest the seat.

It should be noted that both parties also ran low profile campaigns except for the two national meetings and the large motorcades held by the larger parties; PNM’s motorcade dwarfed the UNC’s. And unlike in previous elections, there was not much rent a crowd gathering. Instead, both parties focused on traditional grass roots house to house campaigning.

What does the outcome mean for both parties leadership? Both parties leader has been under pressure of late from supporters as well as Members of Parliament to step aside. Although a low-key election, the outcome has strengthened the hands of the UNC leader while weakening that of the PNM leader. With UNC making gains, Kamla Persad Bissessar is not likely to face any serious challenge or critiques to her leadership till the local elections. Opponents of Dr. Keith Rowley, on the hand, could be emboldened to challenge him for leadership at upcoming executive elections.

In terms of national appeal, both parties need to take stock and re-orient their strategy to win cross-over support.