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Monday 20 August 2018
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Commentary

No by-election bragging rights

DR VISHNU BISRAM

WHILE BOTH major parties (PNM and UNC) are claiming victory and bragging rights in the two by-election seats (Barataria and Belmont East) of Monday, neither party has much to celebrate. If anything, the PNM lost ground and “its voters loss” should be a serious cause of concern to its leadership.

The PNM and UNC, and even the mini Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP), need to engage in serious self-appraisal and introspection. The PNM’s support suffered owing to a downturn in the economy, poor governance, arrogance, increased taxes, rising fuel prices, among other factors.

The UNC increased its voter support because of a lack of a winnable alternative. Voters felt the mini PEP is not ready; it needs ground work and alliance building. It is a wake-up call for all three 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?

The executives of both major parties are doing themselves a disservice boasting about the outcome that has not solidified the base of either party. Although the UNC made gains over the 2016 results, it was more an anti-PNM rather than a pro-UNC vote. Voters told interviewers of the North American Caribbean Teachers Association (NACTA) tracking opinion polls that they were dissatisfied with PNM governance.

There are a lot of political ostriches who feel all is well with the country when the population has been saying the opposite over the last two years. 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 PNM officials. And worse, some won’t get out of their air-conditioned vehicles to meet people.

Constituents complained they have not been serviced since the passing of two most likeable representatives (Pernell Bruno and Darryl Rajpaul) of the districts. And with the passing of the councillors, 12 months and eight months, respectively, representation was virtually non-existent for that duration of time. Voters wanted to send an unambiguous message to the PNM about its “poor governance” and they did so by 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 by-elections after the deaths of the representatives. 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 by-elections after the deaths of representatives – one year for Barataria and eight months for Belmont East.

In democratic countries, by-elections are usually announced within a month of the passing or resignation of a representative. Had the by-elections been held immediately after the deaths of the councillors, the PNM would have won on a wave of sympathy. Bruno won the seat with 58 per cent of the votes cast in 2016 while Rajpaul won with 93 per cent of votes cast. The PNM saw its support drop to 48 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively – a steep 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 the PNM was not at risk of losing the San Juan/Laventille or Port of Spain 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 polling divisions it never did before. There was also an increase in turnout in Barataria in favour of the UNC.

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

What does the outcome mean for both parties’ leadership? Both parties’ leaders have 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 the UNC making gains, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is not likely to face any serious challenge or critiques to her leadership till the local government elections. Opponents of Dr Keith Rowley, on the other hand, could be emboldened to challenge him for leadership at upcoming executive elections.

Dr Vishnu Bisram is a pollster and political analyst

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