Minority May Decide
By Raffique Shah
October 5, 2014
Pollster Nigel Henry’s projection that the results of the 2015 general elections will likely be a "statistical dead heat" is in keeping with the trend that emerged post-1986, after the PNM lost its electoral supremacy.
Every election since 1991 has been a tight race between the PNM and the UNC in whatever form or combination the latter contested the polls.
In 1991, the PNM under Patrick Manning rebounded to win 20 seats. However, the combined votes of the UNC (151,000, 13 seats) and the NAR (127,000, two seats), was far greater than the PNM’s 234,000. In six of the seats it won, the PNM polled fewer votes than the UNC/NAR, and in four that the UNC won, its votes were fewer than the PNM/NAR.
The 1991 elections signalled the start of close elections: 1995-17-17-2; 2000-19-16-1; 2001-18-18; and 2002-20-16. In 2007, with 41 seats at stake, the emergence of the COP saw a skewed win for the PNM (26-15) that did not reflect the true tale of the tape.
In every instance, five seats in the 36-seat configuration, or eight seats in the 41-seat House, were captured by fewer than 1,000 votes, and often changed hands. Last week, I identified three marginal constituencies—Barataria/San Juan, St Joseph and Tunapuna. To those, add San Fernando West.
So in normal general elections, these four seats would decide which party wins. The question is, will the 2015 elections be routine, in the sense that there are no extraordinary factors impacting the polls?
I mentioned earlier that the PNM in 1986 was grappling with a crash in oil prices which had rocketed in 1974 and given the party immense spending power going into the 1976 and 1981 elections. Dr Eric Williams had enjoyed the largesse, and used it extravagantly to the PNM’s advantage.
George Chambers did not enjoy that luxury. It was he who scrapped the Caroni Racing Complex into which Williams had ploughed $100 million. This action, one of several belt-tightening measures, gave me some personal gratification: I had waged an unrelenting campaign against the race track, using the slogan "houses before horses".
Outside of the stuttering economy, the PNM’s absolute control of the Afro-Trini votes had taken a body-blow from the events of 1970. While the party won the elections of 1971, 1976 and 1981 handsomely, a close examination of the percentage of the electorate that supported it would show that it was in decline.
It was against that backdrop that the 1986 elections came, and like a hurricane, the NAR swept the PNM from power.
Similar circumstances surrounded the 2010 elections, which were extraordinary in many ways, hence the comprehensive trouncing of the PNM and the political demise of Patrick Manning. As we approach the 2015 elections five years later, what are the factors that are likely to determine the results? Will the race be as close as Henry’s poll suggests?
As I wrote last week, I will not challenge what the pollster projections given his healthy track record. I think he is accurate in assessing the PNM and the Partnership as having just over 30 per cent of the popular vote each, and the "undecided" being a significant 26 per cent. But I raise some pertinent points.
The PNM has little to lose and everything to gain going into the elections. The party will not lose any of the 12 seats it held on to in 2010: anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself. I shall not include the 13th seat it now holds, St Joseph, which it won in a by-election last year. That is one the very marginal constituencies that could go either way.
The Partnership has the advantage of incumbency, with which comes control of the Treasury and the power to use state funds to promote itself. A cursory look at the continuing wave of Government advertising, currently a campaign that extols the 2015 budget, is evidence that it will not hesitate to exploit its control of power.
But the coalition faces huge challenges, the most insignificant of which might be the quadruple losses it suffered in as many elections last year. The COP, which brought the critical swing votes from the 20 per cent or so of the electorate that holds the key to power, is all but dead today.
Those people did not trust the UNC. They thought the COP would be the moral compass of the coalition, a role it has not fulfilled what with rampant corruption haunting the Government (I know—bring the evidence—the same refrain we had from Manning, Panday, Williams!), and arrogance the trademark of ministers.
The next elections will be a straight fight between the PNM and the UNC. Forget Jack Warner and his ILP. Jack has had his run, enjoyed his moments of glory. There will be no "run-offs".
The Partnership might just hold on with a 21-20 win. But even a small swing against it would bring into focus additional marginal constituencies such as Chaguanas East, Mayaro, Pointe-a-Pierre and Princes Town/Tableland.
A minority may well decide for the majority in 2015, making a mockery of Government’s constitutional contortions.
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