Tunapuna, situated along the east-west Corridor, is a marginal constituency with 26,650 registered voters.
In the past, this constituency has been considered to be the determining factor as to which of the two major parties will win any general election to form the Government.
Marginal constituencies are deemed as those where the difference between the first and second candidate is less than 3,000 votes.
Tunapuna has 36 polling stations and is bounded by Lopinot/Bon Air West in the east, St Augustine and St Joseph constituencies to the south, St Ann’s East in the west and Arima in the north.
Earlier this week Guardian Media was on a two-day tour of the Tunapuna constituency where many residents complained of a high crime rate, unemployment and poor infrastructure- including deplorable roads and inadequate drainage. Residents also complained of traffic congestion and a perennial water shortage.
With the August 10 general election just weeks away, candidates have been busy canvassing voters in the constituency. Those candidates include incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) MP Esmond Forde, United National Congress’ David Nakhid and Progressive Empowerment Party’s (PEP) Maurice Downes.
In past elections, the representative for Tunapuna has been selected with just a difference of several hundred votes.
In 1995, the PNM took control of the constituency with candidate Eddie Hart, who got 7,467 votes. The UNC’s Hector McLean got 7,223 votes—a difference of 244 votes.
In 2000, a mere 336 votes separated the UNC’s Mervyn Assam from Hart. Assam got 9,062 votes, while Hart got 8,726 votes.
In 2001 when the UNC and PNM tied 18-18 in the general election, Hart wrested the seat away from Assam by 254 votes. Hart got 8,792 votes while Assam got 8,538 votes.
In 2002, while the PNM was able to capture 20 seats to the UNC’s 16, only 624 votes separated Hart from UNC candidate Carlos John. Hart got 10,154 votes to John’s 9,530 votes.
For the 2007 general election, there was a significant boundary shift in the Tunapuna constituency when four polling divisions (1765, 1770, 1775 and 1780) on the El Dorado end of the constituency were removed and placed in the newly-created Lopinot-Bon Air West constituency. This means that the eastern boundary for Tunapuna ends at the junction of Thavenot Street and the Eastern Main Road. On the western end of the constituency, polling division 1880 was included from St Ann’s East on the Maracas Royal Road end of the constituency.
These boundary changes altered the true marginality of the Tunapuna constituency and made it a PNM-leaning marginal as opposed to being an outright marginal.
In 2007 the PNM was again able to hold on to Tunapuna—this time by a wider margin.
Their candidate Esther Le Gendre got a comfortable 8,494 votes. The Congress of the People, candidate Clyde Weatherhead got 4,182 votes as opposed to the UNC’s Christine Newallo-Hosein who got 3,986 votes.
If the votes of the UNC and COP were combined, they would have been only 326 votes away from Le Gendre.
The voting margin was significantly increased in 2010 when former Central Bank governor Winston Dookeran won the seat by 2,317 votes for the COP in the People’s Partnership with no UNC candidate contesting the seat. Dookeran got 10,466 votes to Le Gendre’s 8,149 votes.
In 2015 Forde won with 11,228 votes, 3,615 votes more than UNC candidate Wayne Anthony Munroe’s 7,613. Forde’s win was part of the national swing towards the PNM in 2015.
Tunapuna is currently just outside of the band of marginality set for consideration of marginal seats in 2020 (3,000 votes between first and second) based on results from the 2010 general election. However, with a difference of 3,615 votes between first and second in the last general election, it merits consideration because it falls on the cusp of marginality for this election.
As the general election draws closer, the focus is expected to be on Tunapuna to see which way the voting swings this time around.
Guardian Media interviewed about 30 constituents during our visit to the community. The responses of 20 people, between the ages of 20 and 74, were noted and are listed below. Most of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous, stating politics is too controversial to discuss on the record.
Question: How often do you see your Member of Parliament?
“He assisted me once with a food card, he met me right here on the taxi stand where I work.”
“After elections (2015) he came once, but I think he is very approachable.”
“He never came where I live, I heard he went to a couple of funerals when prominent people died but ordinary people don’t see him.”
“I don’t see him in my area at all.”
“I tried to see him to get a food card but I never got through.”
“I’ve never seen him and to see him in his office is stress.”
“I tried to see him, it was a very long process and although I went through the entire thing, I never got to see him.”
Question: Are you satisfied with the level and quality of service that you have received over the last five years from your Member of Parliament?
“No, there is a lot that could have been improved like roads, drainage—where I live as soon as it drizzles, the whole road floods.”
“No, there is a lot of work in the area that only the Venezuelans getting, the MP should have tried to help the people get jobs.”
“Yes, it is fair.”
“Yes, I like how he handled the pandemic.”
“No, I living inside Caura and people are suffering there, we need proper roads and water and nothing is being done.”
“No, I have been dissatisfied with him for years.”
“No, I find the place looks very shabby, with bad roads.”
“So far, yes.”
Question: Does race, party loyalty or policy influence how you vote?
“Race is completely out of the question, if you can listen to my problems and tell me what you will do, then I will vote for you.”
“I have never voted, they have done nothing to help me, it doesn’t make any sense.”
“I listen to their policy and vote accordingly.”
“You can’t vote on race, it must be by who can put their best ideas forward.”
“Party loyalty, it have no race thing there.”
“Party loyalty but there is plenty racial discrimination out there.”
“Policy and if a party says they can do something and I vote for them and they don’t do it, next time they are not getting my vote.”
“For what they can do for the poor people, we suffering out here.”
“Policy and I decide on what the party said they would do and didn’t do.”
Question: Do you believe the state of the economy has improved under this Government?
“No, it seems to be okay but that is because of all the borrowing. We are badly in debt.”
“No, it is worse.”
“No, the PNM keeping all the money for themselves.”
“No, things got more expensive and life got harder.”
“No there were plenty of job losses during the pandemic and many more before the pandemic too.”
“No, plenty people crying in poor areas.”
“Not at all, jobs are much harder to get.”
“Yes, things aren’t that bad. They didn’t fail in that.”
“Yes, it improved.”
Question: Are you satisfied with the Government’s handling of crime in the country?
“No, they have no control over crime. They shut down the oil and gas industry and took away jobs, so crime must continue.”
“No, they are giving police too much power.”
“It’s not the Government, Gary (Griffith) is the one doing the work.”
“Yes, they are trying.”
“No, crime is a social problem and no government can control it.”
“Yes, they did some more there.”
“No, they could still do better.”
Question: Who is a better leader, Dr Keith Rowley or Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar?
“Kamla Persad-Bissessar, I will give her a chance again.”
“Dr Keith Rowley, for the betterment of the country, he has been trying to stabilise things and put things in the correct perspective.”
“Kamla Persad-Bissessar all the way, drape my coffin in yellow when I dead.”
“Neither of them.”
“Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a lot of things she did when she was in power to help people.”
“Neither, it doesn’t make a difference which one of them inside there, things remain the same.”
“Kamla Persad-Bissessar, she was a better Prime Minister, I changed from PNM to UNC under Panday days.”
“Neither of them, we need someone new with fresh ideas.”
Looking for a stable job
Mikhel Voisin is just 20 years old. He works seven days a week as a vendor, selling bottled water and soft drink in Tunapuna to assist with his family’s expenses.
Despite his young age, Voisin seems world-wise, as he navigates between shoppers with his blue portable cooler close to the Tunapuna Market. He pauses his conversation with me often to try to persuade those who hurry by to purchase his cold drinks with the refrain, “Family, you want a water?” He also has a small table set up nearby where he has dozens of avocados for sale.
While he tends to customers, he also keeps a close eye for the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation Municipal police officers, who will chase him off the streets if they find him vending.
Voisin said his produce has been seized by the officers on several occasions in the past and all his appeals for a stall to sell in the market have fallen on deaf ears.
He believes that outgoing MP Esmond Forde should have been able to assist him with employment opportunities.
“They are addressing the black youths as criminals and nothing else, I out here selling water and zaboca because I can’t get a stable job,” Voisin said.
With his responsibilities towards his family, Voisin cannot afford to slack off on the job.
“If I sick or I well, I have to be out here looking to make a dollar because nobody is going to give me anything. I tired beg for a stall in the market, they refuse to give us one. There are people who from outside ‘Puna who fill up the market and we out on the road,” he said.
He said he was unsure if he will vote in the upcoming election as he does not know whether his vote will matter.
“I want somebody there who could offer the youths some kind of opportunities. Businessmen rushing to hire the Venezuelans because they are willing to work for less and we left out again. It’s like if you young and black, crime is the only way you could survive,” Voisin said.
He said he has tried to stay away from trouble so far in his life but he cannot say what his future might bring.
“I don’t want to live that life…but when you sit down and study the fight down, what else you could do? I trying and trying to stay away from that life, I rather burn in the hot sun but is not just me feeling it, is black youths all over the country.”