Generally, there is high voter turnout at elections where the results matter. Unfortunately, in most countries people do not see local elections as particularly important and thus voter turnout is usually lower than at national elections. It follows that turnout will be particularly low at local elections when voters are frustrated with incumbent administrations: people are unlikely to participate in a relatively unimportant process to support a regime with which they are disappointed. When concerns are raised about the low turnout at the 2018 local elections in Guyana, it simply means that voter participation fell much below expectations, but were we not over-ambitious?
In the United Kingdom, voter turnout at local elections averages about a third of the voting age population except that, as is the case in many countries, this figure tends to increase when local elections are held at the same time as national or other high value elections. For example, those held at the same time as the Brexit referendum in 2016 had a turnout of 73% (https://www.bbc.com/news/election-2017-39565288). In the United States, the situation is much worse and the trend is downwards. While turnout at local elections as a percentage of the total voting age population was 26.6% in 2001, it was only 20.9% in 2011. New York, for example, had one of the highest mayoral election participation rates – 90% in 1952, but in 1972 this was down to 50%, and 28% in 2013 (http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-voter-turnout-municipal-elections.html#graph).
Apart from the above, other factors might have contributed to the lower than expected participation rates in Guyana. The novelty of local government elections after not having had them for so long has probably worn off, particularly as people have come to realise that notwithstanding all the hype about the benefits of local government, the elections have made little actual difference to their day to day existence. APNU and the AFC have been quick in attempting to spin the outcome, which has been particularly bad for them, saying that it is the result of deficiencies in voter education for which they are not to be blamed! While voter education might have increased the turnout, there are good reasons to believe that how coalition participation was configured and voter frustration with the government are also contributory factors.
After years of complaining about government profligacy, the coalition almost doubled the number of ministers (with a nice splash of Burnham vice-presidents) and immediately awarded itself hefty salary increases – on the spurious grounds that it would mitigate corruption – at the same time as it was telling others to wait as resources were not available. Now we are told that ministers have not and will not have another increase for this term of the government, and if this is true it is good to know that under pressure the government has shown the contrition others may not have, but the regime showed its hand and ‘boat gone a falls’. For those who supported the AFC, it was clear from the first weeks that the so-called Cummingsburg Accord, which, inter alia, theoretically allotted the prime minister all manner of responsibilities, was about to become the joke it is today. Let us forget the intervening ‘miss-steps’ and fast forward: if in 2016 it was not clear that the coalition manifesto commitments meant little, by 2018 its many promises to establish an independent public service salaries commission to consider also ministerial salaries, take care of the sugar industry and the sugar workers, revitalize the industrial relations environment and restore collective bargaining and reform the constitution and establish a government of national unity, are in tatters, and to add salt to the wound, it managed to negotiate a petroleum agreement that has alarmed even its staunchest supporters.
This type of behaviour has resulted in the commonplace saying, which is a true expression of a frustrated public who thought that 2015 would have ushered in a new era – ‘wha we gat a exchange na change.’ Is it reasonable to expect that persons will turn out in large numbers to vote at low level elections dominated by the concerns of the very people they consider a continuation of an ancient regime they disliked? The answer is yes: but only to protect a vital interest!
The PPP/C can boast that of the 596 proportional representation seats, it won 386 or 64.8% compared to the 188 or 31.5% won by APNU and the 2.3% by the AFC, but there is no doubt that its supporters came out in significant numbers to protect what they perceived as their national interest. The leaders of the PPP/C believe that it was robbed of the last elections and that plans are afoot to repeat that process. Over decades, PPP/C supporters have been indoctrinated to view electoral manipulation as perhaps the most egregious of political crimes and the PNC as its most ardent perpetrator, so they are motivated to go in relatively large numbers to the polls on every occasion to demonstrate their electoral superiority.
Believing that the AFC was demanding a share of the coalition that was above that party’s worth, either without considering the matter carefully enough or because it assessed that it had nothing to lose from the possible humiliation of the AFC, the PNCR forced it to go it alone to demonstrate its little value. The rest is now history and the AFC’s leadership has paid the price for its self-interested obeisance to APNU, which it had best now join as the fiction that the coalition constitutes a government of national unity has been blown asunder.
Furthermore, the mere fact that APNU forced its smaller partner to go it alone, while assuring supporters that the coalition is intact for the 2020 elections, must have indicated to even hard-core APNU supporters, particularly those in safe constituencies, that local elections are not very important. Why should they bother about voting, at the end of the day, whatever the outcome, it would not be a threat to either APNU’s national or local governments.
The leadership of APNU appears to be taking the low turnout of their supporters seriously but given the above factors are they not over-reacting? However, if turnout at local elections is the problem, apart from making voting compulsory, ‘Of all proposals to boost voter turnout, moving the election date to coincide with state or federal elections has, by far, the greatest effect. … shifting mayoral elections to presidential years results in an 18.5 percentage point jump in turnout, while changing to November of a midterm election yields an 8.7 point average increase’ (Ibid).
It is also useful to note that one of the advantages of the status quo is that, ‘Holding elections in off-years also allows elections offices to try out new procedures and better train staff’ (Ibid).