The rise of 17 additional political parties in the 2020 election sends a strong signal of growing disenchantment with the two main political parties — the PNM and UNC — contesting the general election on August 10.
Dissatisfied with how things have been done in the past and not convinced of promised changes in the future, these parties have opted to go it alone, braving the uncertainty and huge possibility of failure with the hope of making a difference in the outcome of the elections, the parliamentary system and the democratic process of the country.
If successful, these parties can make a difference in Tobago and the marginal seats, especially when all indications are that the country is heading into a close race and/or another deadlock.
If Watson Duke emerges victorious in Tobago, one can expect some power brokering with either the UNC or PNM for him to have a leading role in the Parliament and Cabinet of the country. Even if third parties do not win, they may split votes in the marginals, making it an even tighter race between the two main parties; an uncomfortable situation for the PNM and UNC if there is low voter turnout generally across constituencies.
Third parties are hoping to tap into the growing cynicism and distrust by citizens for political leaders and the two main political parties based on their track record in office and political history. For incumbents, it is about defending their term of office and selling their achievements and for the Opposition for holding the governing party to account for policy decisions while proffering an alternate vision for a brighter future. Third parties are hoping to tap into the gap of discontentment by undecided voters who are unhappy with the policy decisions of the incumbent and the vision being proffered by the Opposition. If unconvinced, this large group of undecided voters would rather abstain from voting than vote along traditional lines of race and ethnicity. For them, good governance based on accountability, transparency and integrity in office is what matters most.
In 2015, some pollsters estimated that this group represented about 30 per cent of the voting public and if captured by rivalling parties can make a big difference in which party emerges victorious, especially when it is close as found in consecutive elections in this country.
Since the UNC lost 95,400 votes from 2010 to 2015 and the PNM gained 91,271 votes to secure a victory, over the same period, it is possible to argue although not statistically provable that about 90,000 voters or a substantial part of these were swing voters.
In 2020, the latest poll by HHB and Associates has indicated that this number has increased to 40 per cent. If we accept this as fact, then the increasing number of the electorate who are becoming undecideds means that traditional political parties and politicians are fast losing favour among the electorate and are entering office with less support from the citizenry of the country, even though they may win a general election.
These undecideds are comprised also of a generational shift of young people and/or first-time voters who are not loyal to any one particular party, especially those based on race and ethnicity. Many of them are Internet natives who spend considerable time on social media, connected to a larger space and dimension beyond those of the physical limitations of our small island state. That interconnectivity has shaped their world view, giving them a different perspective of life as we know it in our tiny island in the region. Traditional voting patterns based on race and ethnicity are not yet rooted or conditioned in their minds and as such they can be influenced to vote against purely ethnic choices on the basis of other considerations, making a huge difference in the outcome of close elections, especially in the marginal seats.
In 2015, the PNM was able to engage this group by targeting them with drama and music using social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. The UNC had some success with swing voters in the 2019 local government election, but it is difficult to assess whether that will hold for the 2020 election.
For undecideds to come out and vote, they must be convinced of the capability, competency, and capacity of political parties to steer the country through these difficult times. Some of the dominant issues will be on health and economic recovery during and post Covid-19 period; crime and how to bring the numbers down; securing the borders to stem the flow of illegal Venezuelan immigrants; transformation of education; increasing jobs in the energy and non-energy sectors; how to protect the less advantaged in society in times of economic hardship; and how to create a climate conducive to business success.
If successful, these third parties may very well force changes upon our traditional first past the post, Westminster style system of government which has historically been dominated by two political parties, the PNM and the UNC, and our democratic system of governance as we know it. This will not altogether be a bad thing for our relatively young democracy since our parliamentary system is antiquated and does not allow for the changes taking place in the thinking and composition of the national population. Hence the call from time to time for proportional representation.
We will only know on August 11, 2020, what kind of difference the small parties make. And it all depends on what swing voters do: choose one of the two traditional parties, vote for a third party or stay at home and withhold their vote.
Indrani Bachan-Persad, who holds a PhD in media and politics, is author of Mediatized Political Campaigns: A Caribbean Perspective and Sunlight Dancing in the Snow.