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Raffique Shah


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Polling the Pollster

By Raffique Shah
September 28, 2014

I won't challenge the results and projections of the Solutions by Simulation poll published in the Express last week. Nigel Henry's company has established itself as being uncannily accurate in projecting the results of four elections in Trinidad and Tobago last year, the most startling being the 12-0 victory to the People's National Movement (PNM) in the Tobago House of Assembly election.

Clearly, Henry's methodology is sound, hence his accuracy.

However, I take issue with some of his assumptions which, I think, are flawed. His declaration that 11 seats that changed hands between the 2007 and 2010 general elections (PNM to the People's Partnership) are now deemed "marginal", defies logic.

If one had applied this template in the 1991 elections there would have been 23 marginal seats—which is preposterous.

Let me explain further. Between the United Labour Front (ULF) and the Democratic Action Congress (DAC), which merged with the ONR in 1986 to form the NAR, they held ten seats in 1981-1986 Parliament. The new "party of parties" therefore gained a whopping 23 seats in 1986, wresting from the PNM its heartlands (Laventille, Diego Martin, the entire East-West Corridor, and more).

The PNM barely held on to Laventille, PoS East and San Fernando East.

Now, the main reason why it would have been foolish to declare all the lost seats as being marginal is the 1986 elections were highly unusual, a rare occurrence in politics, hardly likely to be repeated in a generation. The PNM, having lost its founding leader Dr Eric Williams, also faced the first "oil crash", when oil prices fell sharply from their 1974-1980 highs.

New leader and prime minister George Chambers had famously and ominously said to citizens after a big win in 1981, "Fete done, back to work!" The grim economic situation had begun to hurt people. It was a propitious moment for the divided opposition parties—if only they could unite, which they did.

So Karl Hudson-Phillips, whose ONR had shaken the PNM in its strongholds, joined with Basdeo Panday, who was by them the undisputed leader of the Indian constituency, and Tobago's Ray Robinson, who was seen as an acceptable leader.

An unusual confluence of events and a dream union of the forces opposed to the PNM propelled 65 per cent of the electorate to vote, with 66 per cent of electors booting the PNM out of office, and, many felt, into oblivion.

But the same economic challenges that helped drive the PNM from power dogged the NAR in its five years in government. Additionally, internecine warfare that resulted in Panday withdrawing from the NAR, and a Cabinet characterised by its arrogance towards the population, saw the dream shatter well before the 1991 elections.

The PNM, led by Patrick Manning, easily won 21 (of 36) seats to return to power. While the PNM had lost the supremacy it once enjoyed, it had also recovered its base.

Henry's basis of applying "marginal" status to the 23 seats that changed hands would have proved fatal in the 1991 elections.

The 2010 general elections were, in large measure, similar to those of 1986. While the economy was not in tatters (in spite of the global financial crisis), Patrick Manning and his Cabinet's arrogance towards the populace had alienated hordes of voters, among them strong (but not diehard) members of the PNM.

More importantly, the coming together of the United National Congress (UNC) under new leadership, the Congress of the People (COP) that had proved its votes-value in 2007, plus labour and other strident independent voices, created an electric environment that brought 68 per cent of electors to the polling booths.

The results were predictable, although the margin of victory and the strong incursions into "PNM territory" were surprising. The Partnership sealed its strength with another decisive victory in the local government elections that followed.

But the speed with which the Partnership squandered this overwhelming superiority was alarming. The string of losses in four elections in 2013 signalled the demise of the Partnership.

Against this background, there is no rationale for Henry to assume that 11 constituencies snatched by the Partnership in 2010 will be marginal in 2015. Arima is as strong a PNM domain as one can find, and D'Abadie/O'Meara, La Horquetta/Talparo, Lopinot/Bon Air, San Fernando West, the two Tobago seats and Toco/Sangre Grande have all returned to base.

The results of the local government elections in 2013 underscored this, so I do not understand how and why Henry deemed them marginal.

There are, and have been for some time, three marginal constituencies in the UNC/COP/PNM configuration: Barataria/San Juan, St Joseph and Tunapuna.

In one way or other, certainly since the number of constituencies rose from 36 to 41 in 2007, but even before that, these three areas have determined which party wins power.

(To be concluded)

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