Campaigning is in the final stages in advance of the Trinidad and Tobago general election of Monday, 24 May. The race is expected to be tight. This is a “snap” election called by PM Patrick Manning, leader of the Peoples National Party (PNM). Will he be sorry for having called it early?
In my work on “systemic failure” and reform in FPTP systems,* I concluded by drawing up a “watch list” of jurisdictions where recent results suggested the electoral system was inherently prone to producing anomalies, based on deviations of actual outcomes from what the Seat-Vote Equation would expect. T&T was on my Watch List. In the case of T&T, the inherent tendency towards unexpected outcomes derives from a frequent over-representation of the second-largest party, relative to expectations based on “normal” performance of FPTP systems.
For instance, in 1995 and 2001, the top two parties tied in seats due to the second party performing considerably better in seats that would be normally expected. In 1995 the PNM was the largest party but it won a lower percentage of seats (47.2%) than of votes (48.8%); in 2001 the United National Congress (UNC) was first in votes by a respectable margin (49.9% to 46.5%) yet each party won half the seats. Either of these elections could have resulted in a spurious majority (or “wrong winner”).
This will be the country’s fifth election since 2000. The 2001 election had been called very early: in 2000 the UNC had won a very narrow majority of both votes and seats (51.7% and 52.7%, respectively). It fell to 49.9% of votes and half the seats in 2001, and then another election was called in 2002. This one produced alternation to the PNM, with majorities of both seats and votes (55.6% 50.9%, respectively). The party was reelected in 2007, and despite a fall in its votes (to 45.9%) its seats increased (to 63.4%). A third party, the Congress of the People (COP), won over 22% of the vote but no seats.
The underlying problem in T&T stems from two common sources of poor FPTP performance: small assembly size and regionalism. The assembly size was stuck on 36 for many elections (at least as far back as 1966). That is very small for a country with now over 650,000 votes cast in the last two elections (and around a million eligible). By the Cube Root Rule, a country this size should have an assembly of 100-125 members. This problem was “addressed” in 2007 when the assembly was finally increased–all the way to 41.
The nature of regionalism can be seen by looking at the maps from recent elections at Psephos. As is common under FPTP, each party has strongholds and only a few seats change hands at any given election. The UNC dominates most of the center and southeast of Trinidad, whereas the PNM wins nearly every seat in Port of Spain and on Tobago. The partisan division mirrors the division between citizens of Indian or African descent, with the governing PNM relying on the latter group.
In this election, the UNC and COP have joined forces as the core components of a five-party pre-election coalition known as the People’s Partnership. It might seem that such a coalescence of the opposition would make a dramatic difference in the votes-seats conversion to the opposition’s advantage, but it may not. A quick and not-very-systematic perusal of the district-by-district results in 2007 shows only a few districts where the PNM won with less than 50% and where the combined UNC-COP vote would have meant PNM defeat. Most PNM districts were in fact won with majorities, whereas it was the UNC that often won with less than 50%. Still, if the race really is close, even a relative few seats could tip the result. A few seats could result in an over-representation of the Peoples Partnership even if it second in votes–and could even contribute to a spurious majority.
About the campaign, the Jamaica Observer (second link above) notes:
Music in the nation famed for calypso has played a key role in campaigning.
One PNM video shows red-clad crowds dancing at rallies in front of a smiling Manning, with slogans such as “free education” sliding across the screen to a catchy tune.
On the other side, a People’s Partnership campaign song contains the lyrics: “Allegations here, allegations there,” and shows pictures of flashy high-rise buildings alongside hospitals without beds.
“I can’t vote for that!” rings out the chorus.
Trinidad and Tobago would be better served by some form of proportional representation and has earned its place on the Watch List.
* “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in the edited volume by Andre Blais, To Keep or Change First Past the Post.