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Stage set for low voter tournout

July 13, 2003
By Raffique Shah


THERE are only two real issues at stake in tomorrow's local government elections. Firstly, the UNC faithful will decide whether or not Basdeo Panday is politically dead and ready for cremation. Secondly, we shall find out if the electorate believes that there is any hope that the municipalities and regional corporations would be given a modicum of power that differentiates them from village councils and other non-governmental organisations. The latter will determine voter turnout which, on the eve of the elections, appears to be a serious challenge facing the parties contesting the elections.

Panday must be wondering what kind of blight has hit him; if, unnoticed, some "cobo" flew over him and urinated, given the response he, more than the UNC, has had to face since the last general elections. As one who was part of the great workers and farmers movement of 1973-76 that quickly evolved into the powerful United Labour Front (ULF) that propelled Panday into the frontline of national politics, I feel nothing but pity for the man. Almost from the moment we launched out, we were addressing huge crowds in the sugar belt and elsewhere. It was a dizzying pace that never stopped for Panday as he rebounded via the NAR and later the UNC. Wherever he went there was adulation, there were huge crowds. In 1976, the DLP could hardly get more than 100 people to attend its meetings. It was dead. But the corpse refused to be cremated or buried until it was brutalised in those elections. It was a tragic end to a party that, although it was never in government, provided Parliament with a spirited opposition.

Today, I see similar signs of the demise of the UNC. Monitoring meetings during this latest campaign has been quite an experience. Last Saturday, for example, I decided to attend the UNC meeting in San Fernando-the partyís well-advertised thrust in the southern city. Expecting a sizeable crowd, I had planned to park some distance away and walk to listen to the speakers. It turned out that there were fewer than 100 people in the audience, so I did not even bother to pause for some verbal refreshment! And that has been the story at all of Pandayís meetings: poor crowds and distraught speakers literally begging voters to come out and save the country from the PNM.

The size of crowds at meetings does not necessarily reflect a partyís support on the ground. But Panday has had to face even worse insults in the heartland where he was once "de Bas". Over the Easter weekend, workers at the Brechin Castle sugar factory installed a "bobolee" at its entrance. That would have been sacrilege up to a few years ago. The perpetrators would have been hounded down and lynched for their sins against Bas, and the "bobolee" that bore an uncomplimentary placard torn down. In this case, it stood there, placard et al, for more than a week. And too many of his one-time devotees are openly hostile to him although many prefer to grumble rather than heckle.

The portents are not good for Bas, and by extension, the UNC. There is little doubt that the party will retain its traditional strongholds-Couva/Tabaquite/ Talparo, Debe/Penal, Princes Town and the Chaguanas Borough. But even in these areas it seems likely that the PNM could break through in a few electoral districts, which is bad news for the UNC. Add to that ordinary Indo-Trinis who openly attend PNM meetings, identifying with the ruling party. Such developments must make Bas cry. Until recently, the PNM dared not even show its face in these villages and towns in Central and South Trinidad. During this campaign, the ruling party has generally drawn bigger crowds than the UNC almost everywhere, even in Pandayís heartland.

One might argue that crowds go hand in hand with power. The ruling party controls the nationís purse so it could dole out largesse and generally attract or pay for supporters to attend its meetings. That is true to a point. At PNM meetings one noticed maxi taxis and buses and people turning up in San Fernando sporting T-shirts in support of candidates from districts way up north. But thatís par for the political course. When the UNC was in power it did the same thing to boost its crowds. This holds true for advertising and other electionsí paraphernalia as well: the ruling party always enjoys more resources, hence more "joseys", more ads, more roving "mikes".

So tomorrow Panday will face what could well be his final political battle. Should the UNC lose some districts in the heartland and perform poorly at the national level, then the sun will have set on his lengthy and often stormy involvement in politics. I do not believe Bas would want to stick around to see the successor party to the UNC, whatever that may be, do to him what the ULF did to the DLP 27 years ago. He missed one opportunity to quit while he was still respected, meaning in the aftermath of the last general elections. It would be tragic if he suffers yet another body blow, fails to recognise it, and chooses to remain in the fray punch-drunk and disoriented.

Besides Pandayís fate, the other factor that will influence the outcome of the elections is whether people are convinced that the councillors-in-waiting will have the power and resources to do anything for them. A principal complaint by voters is that the local government bodies are useless. That is true, almost to the letter. One has merely to look at the state of the roads, drains, sidewalks and general sanitation that fall under their responsibility to see how incompetent or impotent they are. CPEP employees are showing up the low-or-no-productivity of employees of these corporations. One wonders just how effective they would be if they are given more powers, more resources.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning is promising radical reforms, like allowing heads of these bodies a voice in the Senate. He promises, too, more power to the corporations. But these, especially the latter, have been a mantra adopted by every ruling party at all local elections. Why should the electorate believe he is now ready to share power with the local bodies? Given our history, no Prime Minister is likely to welcome any such "parallel power centres". There is also the issue of accountability. More power must mean intense scrutiny so that funds intended to uplift communities are not wasted on fetes, on councillors "feeding their faces".

The campaign has not ignited the electorate. But it may well have doused Pandayís political light.