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Raffique Shah


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New prospects for small parties

By Raffique Shah
July 27, 2020

It would be remiss of me if, having chosen to comment on the 2020 general election, I ignored the many small parties and independent candidates that have entered the race. The Elections and Boundaries Commission said 150 candidates from 19 parties are set to do battle in 41 constituencies on August 10. Between the PNM and the UNC, they have fielded 80 candidates (41 and 39 respectively), while the new Progressive Empowerment Party has 28 candidates. This means that the other 16 parties and independents will have 42 starters when the polls open.

From all appearances, the election will be a two-party race. The electorate must, however, take notice of the 70 persons who are brave enough to have registered as candidates, running against immense odds, and but for a few of them who have public profiles, they will win neither fame nor fortune from this exercise. They are not mad, at least they don't come across that way. Many of them are intelligent, some very bright, and all of them claim to love their country more than self.

Yet, the electorate will ignore them. However much people may complain about poor representation from governments that come from the PNM or the UNC, they will vote for candidates from the mainstream parties who may be of poor quality by comparison. For them, party loyalty takes precedence over other considerations.

There are some interesting stories behind many of these "third forces" and independents that might shed light on their reasons for running against the odds. History shows that parties that were once constituent parts of coalition arrangements with opposition forces that at some point formed the government, refuse to die or to rejoin their former partners. They persist at the polls convinced that they will one day rise and recapture their glory, maybe even power. The Congress of the People is one such example. It was born out of disenchantment with Basdeo Panday's leadership style back in the early 2000s when the UNC was in opposition.

Winston Dookeran, who had been selected by Panday to succeed him as leader, suffered the humiliation all such heirs-apparent encounter. So he left the UNC and launched the CoP, which comprised some frontline UNC politicians (Ganga Singh, Manohar Ramsaran, Gillian Lucky) and what could be described as "new blood", persons who had broad appeal outside the traditional UNC strongholds (Anand Ramlogan, Gary Griffith, Joe Pires, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Prakash Ramadhar).

In a bruising battle that was reminiscent of the general election of 1981, when Karl Hudson-Phillips had taken the recently-formed Organsation for National Reconstruction to unexpected heights, the COP in 2007 amassed 148,000 votes (22.6 percent of votes cast) to the UNC's 194,000 (29.7 percent) but failed to win a seat. The PNM under Patrick Manning got 299,813 votes (45.85 percent) and secured a comfortable 26 seats to the UNC's 15. It was the closest a third party came to winning or displacing the main party in opposition.

In 1981, Hudson-Phillips's ONR gained 91,704 votes (22 percent of votes cast) but did not win "a damn seat", as new PNM leader George Chambers had accurately predicted. Then, the PNM won the election with 218,557 votes (53 percent) and 24 of 36 seats, while Panday's ULF scored a mere 62,281 (15 percent), but won 10 seats. Of note in the 1981 election, too, were that 12 parties fielded candidates, and six scored significant votes- the others being Ray Robinson's DAC (15,390, two seats in Tobago), NJAC (13,710) and Lloyd Best's Tapia (9,401).

In both cases cited above, the "third forces" proved to be critical to the politics that followed. By 1986, the ONR had teamed up with the ULF, Tapia and the DAC to form the NAR which swept the polls in 1986, almost obliterating the PNM (33-3). In the second instance, the coalition comprising the UNC, COP, MSJ and NJAC, spawned the People's Partnership. With Persad-Bissessar as its leader, the PP went on to convincingly win the 2010 election 29-12, polling 60 percent of votes cast, against the PNM's 40 percent.

This time around, a record 19 parties are in the fray, and while many of them are one-man-shows, there are signs that something better may come out of the election. With Ms Seepersad-Bachan as its political leader, the COP is struggling to attract support. It has fielded only four candidates, but it has formed an accommodation of sorts with other small parties whereby they won't run against each other. In fact, there are several similar arrangements involving the small parties and independents.

In Tobago, Watson Duke's PDP, which holds two seats in the Tobago House of Assembly, is boasting that they will wrestle both seats on the island from the PNM. That is a tall order that is unlikely to materialise. The new Progressive Empowerment Party led by the garrulous Phillip Edward Alexander, believes that by sheer numbers of seats contested (28), his is the dominant "third force". I submit that the number of votes polled will decide that issue.

David Abdulah's MSJ, which has nominated five candidates, impresses many people as being a stable organisation. It is also seen as a radical, left-wing party, which, in my view, is more perception than reality. It was part of the Partnership that swept every election in 2010 and immediately afterwards.

Given these precedents, this election seems set to offer new prospects to the small parties. Some of them may well coalesce into a force to reckon with in its aftermath.

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