By Richard Harrison
Municipal elections in Belize are held every three years and were scheduled for March 4, 2015. General elections to elect members of the House of Representatives are held every five years and must be held by March 2017, but can be called by the Prime Minister at any time before then, with only 30 days notice.
Suddenly, in mid-November 2014, People’s United Party (PUP) elected area representative for Cayo North (Hon. Joseph Mahmud) resigned as standard bearer for his party, and I (among others) was called by senior party officials inviting me to participate in intra-party convention to elect a new standard bearer that would represent the party in the next general elections. After some consultation with people in the area, I decided to accept this invitation, and started to do some ground work in the division.
I have always been disposed to being of service to my country, both privately and publicly….and I know that becoming an elected representative gives one the opportunity to be of greatest influence in the development and general direction of my beloved country, Belize. At the peak of my life, I am well prepared for such an undertaking…and gaining the confidence of my countrymen to serve at this level would be a great honor for me.
By early December, distance had grown between Mahmud and the PUP leadership, and he decided abruptly to resign from his seat in the House of Representatives, triggering the need for a by-election. The Prime Minister could have chosen to set a date between 30 and 90 days from the date of resignation, and he chose January 5, 2015; giving us 34 days. The PUP leadership decided to appoint me the standard bearer to represent the party in the by-election, against my recommendation that we do a quick convention so that the people of the division choose who should represent them. They claimed that the time was too short and that a convention would be divisive and hurt the party’s chances. I found myself at ground zero with this sharp, unforeseen turn of events.
I submitted to their decision, as the leader, deputy leader and national campaign manager agreed in our private meetings that the by-election would be treated as a national election strategically….since it would impact momentum leading up to the municipal elections in March 2015, and the general elections anytime before March 2017…and this was the only way I would stand a fighting chance of winning with such a short notice against the United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate that was working in the division for a year previous….and with all the organizational and material resources of the government and his ruling party behind him.
Shortly after my submission to their decision, the deputy party leader said on national televised newscast that the party leadership had taken the strategic decision that the by-election would be a local election for the PUP…..and in our meetings presented my campaign committee with a less-than-skeleton budget of what the party would support the campaign with, claiming the party simply did not have the funds. This was a grave error in leadership judgment…reflecting its commitment to represent the status quo and not the best interest of the support base of the People’s United Party….willing to make of me a sacrificial lamb instead of doing everything possible to win every election….cutting off its nose to spite its face. I was ready to take a different approach at that point, but key members of my committee encouraged me to stay and that “things would work out” leading up to election day. It never did.
The PUP stuck to its “local election” strategy…..while the UDP implemented a “national election” strategy, bringing all its organizational and material resources from across the country to Cayo North….outspending us 10:1 in direct campaign financing, including vote buying on a massive scale…plus government sponsored Christmas cheer, December home mortgage subsidy for many, trending drop in fuel price, wide spread grocery subsidy, personal construction, medical and education assistance for many, etc etc. The past UDP area representative was on the ground fighting tooth and nail to get their candidate elected….the two past PUP representatives had been chased out to pasture, and they, their families and loyalists were not supporting the campaign. A low 61% turnout of voters on a rainy day gave the UDP 2,664 votes, while the PUP got 1,348….more or less a 2:1 margin.
Shortly after the by-election, while I was on personal business outside the country, I received message that the PUP leadership, with a handful of Cayo North people towing line, had moved to endorse Mr. Michel Chebat as standard bearer for Cayo North….effectively kicking me “under the bus”. This, after I had put my face, reputation, time, energy and resources for the party in such a challenging by-election. I had no knowledge that this would happen….and I nor anyone close to my campaign was consulted, as far as I know. This is how the current “endorsement champions” of the party can be expected to treat anyone that it considers not to be a blind loyal follower. This is the kind of rogue dictatorship that a party which voluntarily suspends its own constitution will provide for….taking away the right of its supporters (more like blind loyal followers?) to democratically choose their representatives in free, open and fair intra-party conventions. Many people ask the fair question “if they cannot uphold their own party’s constitution while in opposition, how can they be expected to uphold the national constitution while in government?”
Indeed, I have not received a call nor invitation to meet from the party leadership since the by-election. I am, and will never be, a blind loyal follower of any man….if I agree with you, you will know….if I don’t, you will know. I respect the democratic free will of the people….and the representatives they put their trust in….resulting from free, open and fair elections….as required by party and national constitutions.
Then to add insult to injury…..their weasels were spreading false propaganda that I had agreed to such agenda at the time when I reluctantly accepted to be endorsed as standard bearer for the by-election. They did not end there, they claimed that I had accepted money from the party leadership for such “accommodation”…and their fake pitbulls were even spewing derogatory and insulting remarks about myself and my family on social media. They were stabbing me while I was already kicked under the bus.
Subsequent to the by-election….the municipal elections were held in nine municipalities across the country on March 4, 2015….and the UDP won 8 out of 9….gaining ground, as they previously held only 6 of 9. The margins in the municipals were very near the 2:1 margin experienced in the by-elections…even though the PUP suddenly found the resources it claimed it did not have at the time of the by-election and were only outspent 3:1…..which proves that the voter sentiment expressed in the Cayo North by-election closely reflected national sentiment. Was my loss margin reason enough to kick me under the bus in the manner they did?
There are those who continue with excuses and empty justifications…..oh, that the voters did not take the by-election and municipal elections seriously…..that the low voter turnout reflects mostly PUP’s that stayed away from the polls due to fear…..that the voters are waiting for the general elections to finally make their move to change the government. Well, the momentum created in the by-election has continued in the municipal elections….nothing has been done by the leadership of the party to change this momentum….and entrenchment seems to be the order of the day. My knowledge of strategy leads me to continue to believe that, if all things remain equal, the momentum developed by the by-election will continue into the next general elections.
The current PUP leadership seems hell bent on creating the party without a party to go to anytime soon. Treating party supporters like disposable diapers only chases them and their families and loyalists away…..it does not inspire unity….and divided, we fall.
I, like most Belizeans, feel proud of the colorful and productive history of the People’s United Party during its 1950-1981 “George Price” years…..large land holdings acquired to give thousands of small holders at affordable rates, forestry to agro-industry and services economic transition, from candles to countrywide electrification, from riverways to highways and roads connecting the entire country, from a few elite schools only for the wealthy and privileged in Belize City to education and health services at the reach of every village, political independence with territorial integrity, pooling of union financial resources into credit unions, social security, telecommunications, expansion of service-oriented government that created many new jobs, massive expansion of Belize City and then Belmopan, ports and airports….all with relatively low level of corruption and debts…and working the mixed economy to benefit mostly a middle-income population living mostly peacefully and in general safety. Our post-Independence history has been pretty much BORROW AND SPEND…continuing the colonialist economic laws, policies and practices that favor imports over domestic production….”old money” economic ball-and-chain, now joined by special-interest and corruption-based nouveau riche, with relatively high unemployment and rising poverty.
The only acceptable way forward is to recommit the entire party to its own CONSTITUTION and call conventions at all levels to allow party supporters to freely, fairly and democratically choose leaders of the party in every constituency and within all the official administrative bodies of the party.
The excuse that it is too expensive and divisive to abide by the People’s United Party Constitution in its call for free, open and fair divisional and national conventions EVERY TWO YEARS (for party supporters to elect their leaders) have proven counterproductive and even disastrous….cheap has become very costly. The cream have obviously not risen to the top….and even once-stalwart supporters from big-time PUP families have broken fence or are bolting in that direction.
The large youth population need a special place and role in the economy, with polices that drive more of the country’s wealth towards them….the private sector workers need a pension system…housing should be much more affordable and available to younger persons at lower interest rates and longer terms…the private sector should lead an agro-forestry-mining industrial revolution, fomented with policies that create a low-tax, high-productivity environment, which creates better balance with the service industries and sustainably develop our natural resources into wealth our people can use to better their living standards instead of borrowing for every little thing that we do.
Let the chips fall where they may.
This article was written by Richard Harrison, Belizean investor in production and services businesses in Belize. He holds a Masters in Business Administration degree from Lancaster University
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