Coming elections - Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
July 21, 2002

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AS THE governing People's Progressive Party this weekend concentrates on its congress amid continuing anxieties for a resumption of the Jagdeo-Hoyte dialogue, I will focus on three coming elections of the three major Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states before year-end - Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.

While in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, a new general election is not expected to come later than October - the third in less than two years - in both Jamaica and Barbados; they can constitutionally be delayed until March 2003.

But the signs on the horizon are increasingly pointing to the real possibility of new elections in all three of these Community partner states well before Christmas.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning's second try to convene the hung parliament that resulted from last December's general election - whenever he chooses to announce the date for the meeting of the House of Representatives - seems destined to suffer the fate of the first attempt in April.

Now, it is becoming more evident that it is not a question of if, but when new election will take place in the final quarter of this year. The prospect of yet another hung parliament or weak government with a slim parliamentary majority in Port-of-Spain is viewed as a very likely outcome.

Last week, Jamaica was advancing its own election arrangements with the appointment of popular evangelist Bishop Herro Blair, as "political ombudsman" to oversee the honouring of a code of conduct for the poll campaign.

The code, signed in May by the leaders of the incumbent People's National Party (PNP) Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, and the Jamaica Labour Party, Opposition Leader, Edward Seaga, is expected to have a sobering influence in keeping the lid on statements and activities during the campaign that could result in disorder and violence.

In Barbados, the governing Labour Party was last week instructing its constituencies that all nominations must be "completed before October" as it gears its election machinery for what it expects to be a 'hat trick' victory against its traditional rival for power, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).

Of the trio of countries preparing for fresh general elections, only in Barbados does it seem safe to predict, short of a political miracle for the opposition, a return to power for a consecutive three five-year term by the incumbent BLP of Prime Minister Owen Arthur.

What all three countries have in common - Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados - is the even number of parliamentary seats as well as the electoral system of first-past-the-post, or winner takes all.

They have consistently rejected either the alternative Proportional Representation system, as it obtains, for instance in Guyana. Or, a mix of both systems as in Suriname. Jamaica has 60 elected parliamentary seats; Trinidad and Tobago has 36 and Barbados has 28 and now moving to 30 for the upcoming poll.

With the significant swings in popular votes, not always reflected in the number of parliamentary seats secured by a governing party, as have happened often in a number of CARICOM states, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and St. Lucia, and, to a lesser extent, Barbados, there continues to be calls for at least a mixture of the electoral systems.

Small parties, which see themselves as alternatives to the predominant two-party system, here and elsewhere in the Community, are often the main advocates of some measure of proportional representation.

But, even in Guyana, with its PR system and a plethora of small parties at election time, third parties or alliances of small parties have continued to fare very poorly in challenging the major parties - People's Progressive Party and People's National Congress.

The absence of a monetary penalty for lost deposits by candidates encourages the frivolousness of "overnight" parties in the Guyana electoral system. In other CARICOM states, so-called nuisance parties or individual candidates knowingly gamble with their deposits

Both the incumbent PNP of Patterson, and the BLP of Arthur are moving into the election campaign mode with new vigour, unperturbed over the possibility of the even number in parliamentary seats resulting in the political nightmare of a hung parliament as in the current case of Trinidad and Tobago.

At the December 1996, election the PNP succeeded in achieving what the BLP was to do in January 1999 - break the traditional two-term syndrome for a governing party, when it scored a massive 50-10 landslide for an unprecedented consecutive third term.

Now, the PNP is talking of a fourth term. The JLP's leader, Seaga, a former Prime Minister, who has survived various threats to his leadership over the dozen years he and his colleagues have been warming the opposition benches in parliament, is, however, confident that this coming election round "is JLP time". It will be a real uphill task to move from ten seats to replacing the PNP administration.

The opinion polls continue to raise and diminish hopes within the PNP and JLP camps. Both need to invigorate eligible voters who, as the latest Stone's poll for the 'Jamaica Observer', has shown, do not seem anxious about casting their ballots. Or at least 60 per cent of them up to late last month. That mood is bound to change, however, once the election bell is rung.

For the opposition DLP in Barbados, it is going to be a most gruelling battle not to win the next general election, that the BLP expects to convincingly take for a third time -something that happened only once before under the DLP's leadership of the late Errol Barrow.

The challenge really is the extent to which the 'Dems' can improve their showing by putting behind them the humiliating two of 28 seats secured at the 1999 election, and gain at least the eight won in 1994 when it lost power to the 'Bees', if not 10-12 of the 30 seats for the House of Assembly.

Right now, as the campaign intensifies in Jamaica, the focus in Trinidad and Tobago has to do more with the announcement of a date by Prime Minister Manning for his second attempt to convene parliament. No success, as expected, means new election within the next three months.