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Voter apathy crosses party lines

July 20, 2003
By Raffique Shah

FOR those of us who kept our feet on the ground and monitored the mood of the people as much as was practical, neither the results nor the voter turnout in last week's local government elections surprised us. The politicians on both sides of the divide, though, seem to have been taken aback by both. Prime Minister Patrick Manning, buoyed by large crowds at almost all of the PNM's main public meetings, no doubt expected a 40 per cent-plus turnout of voters to legitimise his party's victory. That was not to be. One does not know what UNC leader Basdeo Panday expected, if he had long sensed defeat, hence his trite treatment of the results.

Clearly most people have lost confidence in local government, and if serious structural changes to the system are not made soon, the future of such bodies may well be bleak. We have not yet seen the final numbers from the Elections and Boundaries Commission, which is a hell of a thing. It's not as if we live in China or India where it takes weeks for hundreds of millions of people to cast their votes, and an even lengthier time before results could be had. This is a two-by-four country in which a good marathoner could race on foot with the various polling boxes to a central point in any district in less time than it takes him to run a marathon. With all the resources at it has, including computers that are networked, the EBC seems to be mired in the "donkey cart" mode. I guess the public has to wait until later this week before we get the final figures.

But the numbers will prove little that political analysts did not know beforehand. For many years now voters in PNM strongholds have become indifferent to local government elections. There may be several reasons for this voter apathy, starting with the perception that voting for councillors is a waste of precious time. And in politics, perception is often translated into reality. One heard such sentiments expressed by people across the country, not just in PNM controlled areas, when they were interviewed by journalists in the run up to the elections. People believe that their councillors have either failed them, or they are impotent when it comes to handling simple problems in their communities.

Roads and drains that fall under control of the councils or corporations are often in a woeful state. Community centres and other facilities fall into disrepair, recreation grounds and facilities are allowed to deteriorate, and so the list goes on. In many instances those elected to serve are delinquent, not bothering to attend to their responsibilities. But more often the problem runs deeper than mere delinquency. The real issues seem to be just how much power these councils and corporations have and whether the resources allocated to them are adequate to meet their requirements. Often we hear them complain about late release of funds and the central government not meeting its commitments to the corporations. Then there are charges that corporations not controlled by the Government are discriminated against, both in relation to allocations and deliberate delays in releasing funds to them.

These issues notwithstanding, one wonders why the very people who claim lack of representation at the local government level turn out in larger numbers to vote in general elections. One might argue that the latter determine real power hence the fact that we usually have 50 to 60 per cent of the electorate voting. But is representation at the national level any better than what obtains in local government bodies? Based on the complaints one hears about the lack of performance of Members of the House of Representatives, I should think not. So why then do people, many of them strong supporters of their respective parties, refrain from voting at local government elections?

Besides the fact that many of them view the aspirants to office with suspicion if not outright contempt (in anticipation of poor or no representation), there is another important factor. In the bastions of the PNM it is widely believed that no one can beat the balisier, so why bother to vote anyway, even if you support the party? They are sure their party's choices will be elected, so they are not motivated to vote. That is not what the party leadership expects. Last Monday's elections were, in many ways, a show of strength, even a showdown between the PNM and the UNC. So Manning and Panday will have wanted "all hands on deck", or every index finger stained. But that urgency that we saw on the platforms, the plaintive cries to the faithful to "come out in your large numbers", failed to reach the masses.

This apathy has affected the PNM for many years, I said earlier. One has merely to look at the paltry numbersócandidates in districts with 8,000 electors winning with 1,500 votes or lessóto see that their indifference runs deep. What is alarming is that it has now spilled over into UNC strongholds. Again, since I have not yet seen the numbers, I cannot say for sure if what I heard is true. I was told that in districts like Dow Village, California and in areas like Barrackpore and Penal, the UNC polled substantially fewer votes than it normally does. And normally here means over the past 25 years, from the formation of the ULF when Panday's supporters turned out in droves even as PNM supporters failed to show (in their strongholds).

One might argue that the vote was a sign that the sun is setting on Panday's political career, that he no longer motivates his people. I shall deal with my perspective on Panday's demise in another column. But while Panday's fortune may be on the wane, I do not think another leader in the UNC, or even another party, would prompt people to take local government elections seriously. Time was when "the Bas" was able to bring them out from the remotest parts of the country to cast their votes, whether it was in a trade union election or general elections. That was put to rest last Monday. So now we have voter apathy across the board, adversely affecting both parties, and independent candidates fared worse.

Local government is in crisis. The real challenge now is to re-invent it, to make it relevant to the ordinary citizen. Manning must make this a priority or face the wrath of the electorate when next such elections are due. That, significantly, will be on the eve of the next general elections. A word to the wise.....