In a “first past the post” system, third parties tend to be “spoilers”. Regardless of how they try to stake out their ground, third parties tend to take votes away from one party more than the other. Often with the help of gerrymandering, constituencies tend to lean heavily towards one party or the other. There are always “safe” seats.
In Trinidadian politics it’s an easy shorthand to associate parties with race. The PNM has always drawn most of its support from the Afro-Trinidadian population, while the other party has drawn most of its support from the Indo-Trinidadian population. While it is often a useful generalisation, it often breaks down. Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians do not form monolithic blocks. They also only account for 80% of the population.
The 1956 elections revealed at least three political blocks – the PNM, the POPPG (which drew much of its support from the mixed-race, middle class elements) and the PDP, which drew its support primarily from the Hindu population. The Indian vote was split, with Muslim and Presbyterian Indians leaning towards the PNM. (“Presbyterian” appears to have been used as a shorthand for urbanised, educated Presbyterians; I am by no means certain that rural Presbyterians voted any differently from their Hindu neighbours). While the POPPG and the PDP merged into the DLP, the ascendancy of the Capildeos drove much of the “POPPG” element away, either to the PNM or into the political wilderness. At the same time, the Indian elements drifted away from the PNM.
The Black Power movement split the working class Afro-Trinidadians away from the PNM. The 1971 no-vote campaign broke the DLP, and allowed the PNM unfettered control of the government. Disunity in the DLP and the movement of organised labour away from the PNM led to the formation of the ULF. The 1976 elections produced the first real three-party elections since the two-party system became entrenched. While the ULF was based on ideology rather than race, it found most of its support among Indo-Trinidadians. While it failed to win the elections, and also failed to make much inroads among Afro-Trinidadians, the ULF did managed to effectively destroy the DLP, setting the stage for a two-party election in 1981.
The 1981 elections, however, saw the rise of a new party, the ONR. Like the ULF, the ONR had its foundation more in ideology than race – it was a neo-liberal party, and the right end of the political spectrum. It drew its support from middle class elements – in a sense, it could be seen as a successor to the POPPG, coupled with what would once have been called the “Presbyterian” element (though by 1981, creolised middle class Indians were by no means predominantly Presbyterian any more). The ONR managed to get the second most votes in the election, but won no seats. With the anti-PNM votes split between the ONR and ULF (actually ONR and the ULF-DAC-Tapia alliance), the PNM were able to win seats like Pointe-a-Pierre, Fyzabad, Princes Town and Caroni East. In terms of seats in Parliament, the move had totally failed. But the failure led to the union of the ONR, ULF, DAC and parts of Tapia to form the NAR, which swept the 1986 elections, winning 33 out of 36 seats in Parliament and about 2/3 of the votes cast. (Again, this shows how unrepresentative a first-past-the-post system can be).
In 1991, with the PNM resurgent and the NAR broken, we had our third three-party election. Here, it was obvious that the strategy employed by the UNC was to break the NAR, not to win government. And they succeeded admirably, banishing the NAR to Tobago, despite the fact that the NAR ran second (to either the PNM or the UNC) in most constituencies. In the next three elections (1995, 2000 and 2001) the UNC was able to pick up enough of this vote to win at least as many seats as the PNM. But the events of 2001 left the UNC fractured, and it narrowly lost the 2002 elections.
Further infighting led to several splits within the UNC. Eventually, Winston Dookeran led a movement out of the party which became COP. In the run-up to the election there were movements to unite the anti-PNM forces (leading to the UNC becoming the UNC-Alliance), but without success. Having been elected political leader of the UNC but denied any power by the pro-Panday forces, forming a new alliance with Panday would have been a bad idea for Dookeran. So once again, we face a three-party election.
Although there was a lot of support for COP, there seems to be some movement back towards the UNC. While many commentators suggest that Dookeran should have joined back up with the UNC A, Hamid Ghany pointed out that this ignores the fact that a lot of Dookeran’s support comes from people who would not support Panday.
So what is the ultimate strategy for COP? Is Dookeran attempting to do what Panday did in 1976 and 1991 – to break the other anti-PNM party and claim the role of the leader of the opposition, in the hope of defeating the PNM in a later two-party election? Does COP stand a chance of winning enough seats to create a real three-party electoral map? Or are they just painted into a corner, headed for an inevitable defeat? My hope is a fourth alternative, that they will win enough seats on their own to either form the government or be the dominant partner in a coalition government. We’ll find out on Monday.