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Misreading the polls

Published: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014

The population owes a debt of gratitude to Independent Senator Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir for effectively killing the runoff provision in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014. Although the bill was passed, as everyone now knows, the recall provision was always going to be stillborn since the bar has been set so high that it will be virtually impossible for any MP to be recalled. The fixed term limits was always a non-issue since the electorate has already found a way to impose its own term limits.

But by insisting on a 25 per cent threshold for the runoff provision and including that a third party which gets within five per cent of the second place winner should also be included in the second poll, Dr Mahabir forced the Government to concede the possibility that MPs will be elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote. But this is precisely what the bill was drafted to prevent.

This means, for example, that as was the case in 2007 when the PNM was elected with 21 seats over the 50 per cent threshold (and not 20 as I stated two weeks ago), any strong third party challenge can force a three-way fight in a constituency. And the eventual winner will not need to get 50 per cent.

Such results are possible in closely fought marginal seats. In 2007, for example, the PNM won St Joseph with 46.75 per cent of the vote while the UNC got 28.94 and the COP got 24.31 (a difference of 4.63 between second and third). In that same year in Chaguanas East the COP got 25.8 per cent while the UNC vote amounted to 31.5 per cent (a difference of 5.7 per cent) with the PNM winning with 42.67 per cent. A strong third party will therefore assure a win for the PNM with only slight improvement on the COP’s 2007 performance.

The problem is, it is clear that the bill was originally drafted to prevent just such an eventuality, since the UNC/PP has the greater tendency for splitting its vote, as happened in the recent St Joseph by-election and has been the case for much of its history.

On Thursday night, as Dr Mahabir rehashed his explanation (in the manner of a weary professor) of just how the formula would work, it was clear that not only did many of the senators not understand, but more worryingly, no one on the Government benches seemed aware of how it would work to ensure the election of majority MPs.

It was approaching 11 pm, however, and the tired senators were clearly unable to answer the question repeatedly asked by Faris al Rawi on whether the formula would satisfy the original aims of the legislation. They just did not know.

But we should not be surprised since, it was always clear, few on the Government benches actually understood the philosophy behind the bill and just how the measures would achieve it. And they were not alone. The MFO poll commissioned by the Sunday Express and published just two days before the Senate debate showed widespread ignorance of the clauses of the bill—although it had been already passed in the Lower House.

According to that poll, 85 per cent of those polled wanted the debate stopped for more consultation on the matter.

Ahead of the publication by the Sunday Express, the Government found it necessary to release its own MORI poll findings, which on the face of it, gave a counter narrative to the findings in the Express, although the two polls were taken at a different time. 

The apparent difference in the poll findings, for example, allowed Independent Senator Dr Rolph Balgobin—a former head of the UWI Institute of Business, and a man who, just by virtue of his qualifications, must have been trained in survey methods—to state on the Senate floor his distrust of polling.

Trinidad and Tobago, Balgobin said, was a difficult country to poll, adding, even more amazingly, because someone from Debe could have a different opinion from someone from Penal. One would like to believe that Dr Balgobin knows better than that and that both polls were an accurate reflection of what they sought to survey at the time they were conducted.

More worrying, however, is that despite an elaborate media campaign by the Government, the polls found a decided lack of interest in the Constitution reform proposals which have taken up so much parliamentary resources.
The MORI poll, according to the Newsday, found:

“Though the majority backed individual reforms, when questioned initially on support for ‘the Government’s proposals to reform the Constitution’ the outcome was different. A total of 35 per cent said they supported, while 29 per cent said they opposed. Mori stated 11 per cent indicated they neither supported nor opposed, while a large chunk, 26 per cent, replied ‘don’t know’ to the question.”

In fact “a total of 17 per cent indicated constitutional reform was one of the most important issues facing the country…”

It was clear from both polls that there was no public demand for the bills or even an understanding of why they were necessary. What we were not aware before its passage, however, was that the state of ignorance also extended to the majority of parliamentarians who supported it.