THE BELMONT East and Barataria local government by-elections might affect a very small proportion of the population, but that has not stopped the major political parties from making a concerted effort to campaign.
While local government as a whole takes a back seat to politics on the national level, July 16’s by-elections are shaping up to be an exception to the rule.
The PNM and UNC have been plastering walls with posters, holding cottage meetings, staging walkabouts and driving megaphones through the streets of both seats. Many residents might be tempted to dismiss the hustings as, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”, to borrow Shakespeare’s formulation. They would have cause.
The results will definitely not affect the composition of the Parliament. Nor will they shift the balance of power in the city of Port of Spain or the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation.
However, with crime at an alarmingly high rate, the elections might become infected with national governance issues. If the Opposition party can turn one of the two seats from red to yellow, this outcome will potentially place pressure on the leadership of the PNM. For instance, a shock victory in Belmont East would be an embarrassment for Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely, according to pollsters and residents. The Belmont East seat is within a PNM stronghold and the last PNM councillor, the late Darryl Rajpaul, was very popular. The PNM decimated the UNC in this seat by taking 94 per cent of the vote in 2016.
It is in Barataria, however, that things may be fluid. In 2016, the PNM won 1,898 votes to the UNC’s 1,506.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. Both sides will spin the results in their favour. If the UNC wins, that party will seek to make heavy weather out of it, casting the outcome as a barometer of the national mood. If the UNC loses, the PNM will point to yet another defeat under the tenure of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, while the UNC is likely to shrug off the matter by claiming it reflects a longstanding tendency of voters to vote PNM in both seats.
Whatever the outcome, we welcome these elections particularly because they are long overdue. The polls will finally restore representation for nearly 13,500 citizens at the local government level. Though the by-elections do not pose a serious challenge to the stability of the Government or the Opposition, they nonetheless present citizens with a chance to decisively air their views. What is more, they present all sides with an opportunity to discuss local government reform, particularly as it relates to the timing of by-elections.