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The cake and the candle

Published: 
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Believe it or not, through Sunday’s World Cup Finals, the continuing murderous violence and the onset of the hurricane season, there are two local government by-elections (“bye-elections” as used by the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC) is also correct, as far as I am concerned) to be held next Monday.

These two elections became necessary when two local government representatives died last year. Pernell Bruno, People’s National Movement (PNM) councillor in the electoral district of Barataria–which is in the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation–died in July, and PNM Belmont East councillor Darryl Rajpaul, from the City of Port-of-Spain, passed away in November.

Local government polls are not always the most exciting public events–by-elections in particular. People who support political organisations probably wonder, in the end, whether the cake is sometimes worth the candle.

The more astute, though, keep an eye on these quickly passing parades for important cues into the actual political temperature in the areas in which they matter most.

Here are communities that lean on local government to deliver everything from waste management, infrastructure support, planning, emergency services at times of disaster, and fulfilment of a variety of daily needs the corresponding MPs do not have as part of their terms of reference. Serious political organisations, claiming a national base, do not abstain from such contests, in my humble view.

I remember covering the local government by-election in 1989 in the Guaico-Cumuto district in Sangre Grande and witnessing firm evidence that the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) was in terminal decline when Ramdeen “John Agitation” Ramjattan won the seat on behalf of an emerging United National Congress (UNC). He was the young party’s first candidate in any election. The 1991 general election demolition of the NAR was therefore, to some, no real surprise.

The political accommodation, comprising the founding NAR parties, had also by contrast performed creditably when the 1983 local government elections came around and tested the political waters in the face of a flailing PNM. This served as an important precursor to the 33-3 1986 general election victory for the NAR.

Municipal elections have also notoriously reflected voter apathy outside of general election seasons when political largesse is more abundantly on display and the stakes are thought to be much higher.

This is why the main parties have not usually invested substantial political capital in such campaigns. Who really cares? One notable exception was the 2013 local government elections with a record turnout of 43.6 per cent and which was dominated, albeit marginally, by the PNM despite the UNC-led administration’s hold on parliament. This occurred despite then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s high-profile presence throughout the campaign.

Close election watchers could on hindsight have easily joined the dots to the 2015 electoral loss by the UNC.

Enter Barataria and Belmont East 2018. Though Belmont East has staged barely-remarkable contests over the years, the Barataria seat has always tended to be problematic for ruling administrations. In 2013, for example, Bruno won on a minority vote of 49.3 per cent while a combined UNC (32.59n per cent)/ILP (17.87 per cent) could have taken the seat.

Then, in 2016, a recount was demanded after Bruno won again by under 400 votes in a two-way encounter with the UNC’s Vijay Mahabir. The overall island-wide voter turnout was barely 34 per cent.

Today, almost three years into the Dr Keith Rowley administration, the temperature can again be taken in several ways.

The first would be by way of voter turnout–anything less than the 2016 turnout should tell all involved something about their relevance when it comes to brass tacks. The second would be the unique barometer Barataria has turned out to be over the years.

In 1983, even with the tide turning away from the PNM, the NAR won the El Socorro West/Barataria seat by just over 300 votes.

On Tuesday morning, therefore, just under 14,000 voters in both districts combined have the opportunity to relay to the rest of the country, in relatively-instructive terms, what the prospects for the main combatants are likely to be next time the big bell is rung.

All involved downplay this at their own peril. This cake, history has proven, is well worth the however dimly-lit candle.

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