Proportional Representation in Trinidad and Tobago

by Matt DeWilde // Published October 17, 2013



On September 11th, 2013, Trinidad and Tobago took an important step toward fair representation by passing the Municipal Corporations Amendment Bill. The bill introduces a degree of proportional representation into Trinidad's local elections. Previously, all local government officials were either appointed or elected under winner-take-all rules, in which citizens of Trinidad and Tobago voted for candidates in single-member districts, and the candidate who won a plurality of votes in each district was elected - much like congressional elections in the U.S. Under the new proportional representation system, citizens will vote for a political party, and that party's representation will be proportional to the percentage of the vote it receives.

Like many former colonies of Great Britain, Trinidad and Tobago is a republic with a bicameral parliament based on the Westminster system of government. The local government of Trinidad is divided into 14 "corporations," five of which are municipalities, while the other 9 are larger regions. The government officials in these 14 corporations were previously decided by winner-take-all elections and appointments. Because of this, in 9 of the 14 corporations, one party controls over 80% of the seats.  Such monopoly control is commonplace in winner-take-all systems, in which a party with a plurality of support in a given geographic region can control all of that region's representation.

The new system will not replace winner-take-all elections in Trinidad and Tobago's corporations. Instead, it will provide more opportunities for representation by having the four aldermen (similar to councilmen or commissioners) for each corporation be elected by proportional representation instead of being appointed. This will decrease the size of the majority the dominant party holds by allowing the minority party in a district to pick up an extra position or two.

Trinidad and Tobago is not the first former British colony to experiment with proportional representation; Australia and New Zealand have adopted proportional systems in elections for their national legislatures.

Trinidad is implementing what is called a closed-list system for the election of the aldermen. In this system, each party provides a list of candidates that will be elected if the party receives enough votes. It is called a "closed" system because voters cannot vote for individual candidates on the list, but only for a political party. After votes are cast, the four seats in each municipality will be divided up using the largest remainders method of calculation. Parties need to reach a certain threshold of votes in order to win a seat, and in Trinidad and Tobago's four-seat districts that threshold is 20%.  

There are three main political parties in Trinidad: the People's National Movement (PNM), the United National Congress (UNC), and the Congress of the People (COP). The UNC and the COP are in a coalition known as the People's Partnership (PP). Support for the parties tends to fall along ethnic lines. PNM obtains the majority of the Afro-Trinidadian vote while UNC's support comes largely from the Indo-Trinidadian vote.

The opinion of the parties on the switch to proportional representation is somewhat counter-intuitive. Even though PNM is the minority party and could stand to gain a few seats in local elections from proportional representation, they are opposed to the new system. They have argued that the parties in power (The People's Partnership) are passing this legislation as a last chance effort to gain favor with voters before the election. The head of the opposition party called it a "sleight of hand strategy."

A brief look at recent election history in Trinidad and Tobago shows why PNM might not be excited about proportional representation. The last time they won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, in 2007, the People's Partnership actually won a majority of the vote. It was a classic example of a distorted outcome resulting from winner-take-all, analogous to the 2012 U.S. congressional election where Republicans won a majority of House seats while Democrats won more votes. The PNM might believe that it has a better chance at regaining power under winner-take-all, even though they currently hold a disproportionately small number of seats relative to their vote share in the 2010 election. 

Regardless of the motives of those introducing the bill, this legislation is good for Trinidad and Tobago in the long run. It will give more people a voice in determining who runs their local government.  Minority groups will have better representation, and scenarios where the party with more votes wins fewer seats will be less likely. Furthermore, this legislation has brought about discussion of eventually adopting proportional representation for the national government.

Reform in Trinidad and Tobago provides an example to reformers in the U.S. of how a fair representation voting system can first be introduced on the local level. FairVote does not advocate for the closed list system being implemented by Trinidad and Tobago for use in the U.S., as it would clash with America's individualistic political culture. Instead, we prefer a candidate-based system such as choice voting where voters have full control over the candidates being elected. In fact, over 100 local jurisdictions in the U.S. already use such systems. However unchangeable the American electoral system may at times seem, reform efforts abroad in places like Trinidad and Tobago show that structural electoral change is achievable.