In the politics of this country, the two Tobago constituencies have often been the bellwether, predicting a shift in political fortunes. Changes in political support on the island, whether in general or Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections, have in the past been signals of a pending shift in the balance of power between the country’s main political parties.
To this day, political pundits point to the success of the now-defunct Democratic Action Congress (DAC) in the 1976 elections as the harbinger of the huge political defeat suffered by the People’s National Movement (PNM) a decade later. The margin of that loss in 1986, 33-3, to the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), remains the worst defeat ever suffered by that party.
The DAC not only won both Tobago seats, which were taken by ANR Robinson and Winston Murray, but also controlled the THA. Tobago remained a stronghold for the DAC until that party joined with other opposition entities to form the NAR.
The Robinson-led NAR played a critical role in the outcome of the 1985 general election which ended with the PNM and UNC holding 17 seats each, and the NAR holding the two Tobago seats. The UNC and NAR then entered a coalition, bringing the UNC into power with Basdeo Panday at the helm.
The DAC and NAR no longer exist and a new political entity, Watson Duke’s Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), is the main opposition party in play in Tobago. The United National Congress has not fielded any candidates there and non-appearances by any representatives from the One Tobago Voice coalition leaves the PDP as the main challenger to the PNM in Tobago East and West.
This is the very same PDP that in January 2017 made inroads that broke the PNM’s stronghold over the island, snatching two of the ten seats in the THA. This happened just four years after the ruling party made a clean sweep in the 2013 polls.
This year, for the first time, the intensity of the battle to win Tobago is defined by the fact that the leaders of the two parties most dominant in the race— Mr Duke and Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley—are native sons who are hoping their heritage will translate into outright victories for them.
All indicators are that it will be a strong fight to the finish.
Mr Duke, an outspoken and controversial figure, is hoping to secure enough of a foothold in Tobago to influence the balance of power in Parliament, just like the late ANR Robinson did 35 years ago.
However, Dr Rowley has been unleashing quite a salvo at Mr Duke, whom he has accused of being an agent for the UNC in Tobago. His statements from the platform over the weekend were an indication of how seriously he and members of the PNM are treating this election battle.
Could it be that where Tobago goes politically, Trinidad will follow? That answer will be known on August 10.