The 2020 general election in Trinidad and Tobago will go down in our political history as the Covid-19 campaign in which campaigning as we know it would change dramatically.
It forced parties to abandon traditional campaign strategies such as public rallies, replacing them with virtual campaigns streamed live on social media platforms such as Facebook as well as aired live on radio and television. How political parties treated with the pandemic during this period may even have influenced voter turnout and the outcome of election.
For the PNM the decision would have been to either call the election and risk being blamed should there be a spike in the number of infected persons after the election, or postpone the election and risk being accused of sabotaging the democratic process. The PNM must have calculated that it would be easier to manage the fallout while in government, soon after the election.
The most pertinent issue for this Covid-19 election was how to campaign, given the need for social distancing. The sombre mood and general pessimism of the country was far from the elated jubilance and excitement during elections. This was further compounded by the economic fallout from the pandemic, resulting in many job losses, closure of businesses and hardships for many citizens.
It was therefore important that political parties understood the mood of the country and demonstrate some sensitivity in the way they campaigned. One would have thought that if political parties had developed their campaign strategies before the pandemic, they would have reviewed and re-strategised to take into account the changed mood of the country as a result of the pandemic. It was also a time for parties to put aside political differences in the interest of the national population and agree on the less exciting method of campaigning, to prevent the spread of the virus.
Social media took on new significance and became the foremost method of communication between political parties and the electorate. This transition to online campaigning has been more fully embraced by the tech-savvy younger candidates in all political parties. On a daily basis, the electorate was bombarded with livestreams, photos and videos of the campaign, sent from their smartphones. One could sense the excitement, hype and jubilance especially from the UNC which had a number of new and younger candidates.
While the PNM continued to have a strong social media presence, they also invested heavily in traditional media, monopolising both radio and television airwaves. Perhaps understanding they had a captive audience at home because of the lockdown, and that the reach of social media may have been limited because of Internet access for those in rural communities, this strategy gave them an advantage over their rivals.
Whether this translated into more votes is debatable. Voter turnout was very low; 58.04 per cent compared with 66.8 per cent in 2015. Even though the PNM won the election with a margin that was considerably smaller when compared with the 2015 election, both parties lost considerable supporters in the 2020 election. The PNM also lost a bigger chunk of supporters when compared with 2015. So, low voter turnout could be a direct result of the fear of contracting the virus, especially among the vulnerable groups in the society.
Even though political parties adhered, for the most part, to the restrictions and replaced mass rallies and other public gatherings with virtual campaigns; there was still a spike in infections and community spread. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude that the spread in the virus was a direct result of the political campaigning, although some persons may have gotten the virus during this period. One can also conclude that if measures were not in place and adhered to during campaigns, then we may have been facing an even bigger crisis today.
One can also conclude that the general mood due to the economic fallout as a result of the pandemic, as well as the fear of contracting the virus, would have been major factors in preventing people coming out to vote. In addition, social media was insufficient to create momentum among the electorate.
Other considerations should not be underestimated, such as voter disenchantment with political parties, their leadership, choice of representatives and their vision for taking the country forward over the next five years. After all, eight per cent of the people voting last time refused to come out, and 42 per cent did not vote. Further, both PNM and UNC lost votes, so that there were issues of dissatisfaction with both parties in the election.
The dissatisfaction was sufficient to prompt people not to vote at all, and not inspiring enough to shift from one party for the other to cause a change of government.
—The author works at The UWI, St Augustine, and wrote Mediatized Political Campaigns: A Caribbean Perspective, which focuses on elections in T&T.