Belize: analysis of the current political situation
Wednesday, September 30th 2015
By Richard Harrison
Belize celebrated its 34th anniversary of Independence on September 21, 2015.
There are two major political parties, the People’s United Party (PUP) and the United Democratic Party (UDP). Since Independence, they have had 17 years each of governing Belize, with the UDP currently in power.
The ruling UDP party took the reins of government in February 2008, winning 25 of the 31 seats in the House of Representatives. Elections were called 4 years into their 5-year term, and in March 2012 the UDP almost lost the elections, winning only 17 of the 31 seats, with four seats won by default….two because two PUP area representatives withdrew at last hour from contesting their “sure” seats for the party, and two where the PUP lost on election day due to poor organization and financing in these divisions.
On January 5 and July 8, 2015, the PUP lost two of its seats in bi-elections held as a result of two PUP area representatives resigning their post, at odds with the party leadership. The UDP now control 19 of the 31 seats.
The next general elections had to be called before June 2017, however the Prime Minister (whose decision it is to set the date) in his Independence Day address insinuated that he would call the elections before the next Independence Day.
The leader of the opposition and area representative for Freetown kept calling for elections “now” at every opportunity. Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it?
On Monday, September 28, the prime minister used his discretion, allowed him by antiquated Belize law, to call the elections for November 4, 2015, 3 years and 7 months into his second 5-year term.
I. THE “ALTERNATIVE” MOVEMENT
What were the “independents”, remnants of the Vision Inspired by the People (VIP), the People’s National Party (PNP) and splinter groups such as “commoners” have announced recently that they plan to amalgamate to offer an alternative national political party for voters across the country in the next general elections. These are mostly regional and small groups that have had a very narrow focus, for example the VIP was focused on anti-corruption, while the PNP was focused on territorial boundaries. They have never come close to winning an election, after many years in existence, and do not seem to have convinced many people to move in their direction with finance, organization nor votes.
There are other small groups with some political stage, such as the “territorial volunteers” and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA)….but they have very little support in finance and numbers of votes.
While there is much sympathy for alternative movements, not many move to concentrated finance or votes for them. The time is too short to expect this to change anytime before November 4.
If they are strategic and work hard in marginal seats, they could cause upsets in either direction for the major political parties, which could have significant impact on the final outcomes. Backdoor support from either the red or blue camp, to serve their own interests in marginal seats, could bolster their efforts in this regard.
II. THE PRIVATE SECTOR
The private sector is not organized for political action. While the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) is the largest umbrella private sector organization, it has never played a role in moving the private sector in mass towards one political direction or the other. Business people generally move in the direction that is individually opportunistic, or along traditional party lines.
By far, the largest number of business people are in the small and medium enterprise category and have no representative organization for political action.
The Belize Tourism Industry Association, the Citrus Growers Association, Banana Growers Association, Bankers Association, Grain Growers Association, Shrimp growers association, associations of insurers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, architects and others exist, but serve no concentrated political action agenda.
The private sector is more or less split down the middle between those that are doing well and those that are not. The tourism sector, the importers, the producers with specials favors, tax holiday and market protection, majority of the services sector and those favored for government contracts are all smiling. Small and medium business people and self-employed persons, who are the vast majority, are not doing so well.
Private sector employees in general, which account for the lion’s share of employed persons in Belize, are struggling to make ends meet as they are seeing their real incomes steadily decline. Many have lost or are losing their homes and businesses, and many more have migrated to search for greener pastures.
None of the major political parties have spoken substance to this block of important voters.
III. ASSOCIATIONS AND UNIONS
There are teacher’s union, public service union, communication workers union, port workers union, electricity workers union all unified under a National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), sugarcane farmers associations, fishing cooperatives and credit unions. This is where the numbers and finances are that can implement massive political action agenda. However, each of their agenda is very narrow and self-centered around their own personal interests, as they are not historically motivated to act in the interest of the common good. The various governments have all used divide and rule tactics to manipulate the unions, who are all too willing to give in when their narrow self-interests are served. The sky could be falling down, but as long as the interest of my group is acceptably served, there is no need for me to make sacrifices on behalf of others or some vague “common good”.
While the UDP government has had differences with the NGO community, especially the environmental sector, the PM’s wife keeps them in check by regularly inviting them to afternoon tea and biscuits and black and white gala events.
The lack of articulation of a national vision by either of the political parties, with no “common good” clearly suggested and accepted, may be the reason why these mass organizations with so much potential political power have chosen not to act outside the interests of their own members.
They have experience having been played by both political parties when they were in government, such that they will move in the direction of the party that best serves, or promise to serve, their self-interest.
IV. THE YOUTH
There is no leadership or organization of youth power outside the major political parties. Around 22% of Belize population is between the age of 15 and 24, and around 26% between 18 and 29. This is the elephant in the room, but it is sleeping. The youth that vote are polarized between the blue and red, and there are large sections of the youth that are not registered to vote, or choose not to go to the polls. Most are asking “what have you done for me lately?” and can shift their vote for a few dollars or a little special attention. Not many of them keep up with the news and are mostly unaware of or lack interest in the political and economic issues facing the country, mostly believing that their vote cannot change anything. Youth unemployment is in the range of 22%, much higher than the 14% in the general population. They have not benefited much from the PetroCaribe “roll it”, and are mostly the victims of the crime riddled society that is fast developing. But, most are living in their parent’s homes or single-room barracks, and free to come-and-go do the rolly polly as they please.
Where the money rolls, for now, the youth will surely be “loyal”. Nobody believes there will ever be free education from primary school to university, because that is an old gimmick that only eats deeper in the pockets of parents and students with each passing year, no matter which government.
V. THE ELDERLY AND RETIRED
Around 10% of the population is over 55 years old. In other countries this block of voters is well organized for political action, however in Belize they are not. This is a sleeping giant in Belize politics, especially since the retired and aged persons have seen little to no benefits from the spoils being shared out obviously with votes in mind. A special-interest, non-aligned organization that can manage to mobilize the political power of this group would have a significant say in Belize politics.
The aged and retired will again generally vote along traditional party lines, with a few responding to special interest of mortgage or debt forgiveness, children’s scholarships, land papers or other such “personal” favors.
VI. IMMIGRANTS & DIASPORA
Belize has a large section of immigrants that are eligible to vote. These are Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Chinese, Hindus, North Americans, Europeans and Caribbean origin people. Even the Mennonites can be considered an immigrant population in Belize, since they have not fully integrated into Belizean society. These are generally the people who do the best in the Belize special-interest economy, generally “supporting the party in power”.
Once the PUP could count on the very significant Central American vote, but since the UDP threatened to deport them, many relations of convenience have developed, and the PUP no longer can claim the lion’s share of this block of voters for themselves. In fact, large sections of the immigrant vote have aligned with the red out of self-preservation and/or self-enhancement, a trend which is significant in almost every electoral division in Belize.
Belize does not allow proxy vote for the diaspora registered to vote, and only few travel home for elections, mostly those linked in some way, shape or form to the party in power and the cookie jar.
Francis Fonseca, Leader of the PUP
VII. THE PEOPLE’S UNITED PARTY
This 65-year old party of Independence resolved a leadership crisis around October 2011, by anointing its Party Leader without convention contest. He is viewed by most within and without the party as a front for the “old guard” tainted with accusations of massive corruption during their last term in government.
The majority of the standard bearers representing the party gained their position through anointed endorsement by the party hierarchy, instead of by contested conventions, so their competitive electioneering prowess is mostly untested.
Since then the party has gone on to lose the municipal elections in 2012 and 2015, increasing the margin of loss each time, especially after PetroCaribe “roll it”.
The party also lost the general elections of 2012, the bi-election in Cayo North in January 2015 and the bi-election in Dangriga in July 2015.
The party has claimed difficulty in raising finances, and observers point out that they are not at the top of their game where organization and execution is concerned. The “blue machine” does not appear all revved up.
The PUP has been facing many internal challenges, especially regarding its stubbornness to prevent its leaders from earning their positions through contested elections in periodic party conventions as required by the party constitution, and demanded by large segments of the party. In their self-righteousness they have sidelined many PUP would-be-supporters who did not sheepishly swallow their line, hook and sinker. Taking all traditional PUP’s for granted, they have not sought to clean up and heal those wounds. They have also not taken into account that hundreds of PUP families across the country have broken ranks with the lure of PetroCaribe financed contracts, jobs, scholarships, friends-with-benefits relations and other sweet deals.
Rat at Western Regional Hospital
They promised that if elected to form the next government they would focus on education, governance and economic reform. Thus far, they had released an education reform agenda, but no governance or economic reform agenda. The UDP burst their balloon when they implemented in great part the centerpiece of the PUP education agenda, which was to give free tablets to high school and junior college students. They would have to rapidly invent very specific and targeted Mount Everest-type promises to make any hay over the few days to election, but without having consulted widely with voters this is very risky.
The UDP have made many blunders which seemed like spectacular opportunities for the PUP to make political mileage, however they were either unwilling or unable to produce the fireworks. Having proved that they are not adept at exploiting political capital, it is highly unlikely that a political bombshell will be identified and sufficiently exploited over the next 36 days to cause any significant impact on the forecast below.
VIII. THE UNITED DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The UDP is a dictatorship, one-man-band run by the Prime Minister (and a small core “cabinet outside the cabinet” that control strategy and tactics), who often expressed much disdain for those elected around him. They have a large red and wayward ant nest of worker ants that will toil day and night in unity to execute tasks once the sweet and free dollars are flowing. They readily fall apart and descend into quarrel without this grease. They also have a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals here in Belize, and those that fly in from abroad during election periods, to support their efforts and pay-back for their lucrative insider contracts and special office jobs, and to rub shoulders with the high and mighty. To be fair to them, they also have a few very intelligent folks among them who were injured in some way or another by the PUP and carry that chip on their shoulder with a vengeance. They swamp the social media with their red propaganda and campaign with their past students, families, neighbors and contacts, with loyalty to their red party above loyalty to their country. Many of them were highly paid favorites of the Musa-Fonseca regime of 1998-2008, as part of their well known penetration strategy. Dean Barrow was a student of that strategy, and now has proved better at it than the masters.
The PetroCaribe facility, reopened in 2012, is the tide that has had the UDP boat floating high since then. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has allowed its generosity to be used and abused to compromise the democratic life of Belize, while enhancing the demagogic ambitions of Dean Barrow and his inner circle. The UDP have no other claim to fame, with most of the economy faltering after spending many millions of loan dollars, and their principal sponsor (the Venezuelan government) is mired in political and economic confusion and indiscipline.
The streets infrastructure projects which was spearheaded by the Mayor of Belize, and initially attacked by the Prime Minister and his generals, was embraced after the narrow 2012 UDP win and advent of the PetroCaribe flow of cheap money. This is the sole reason why the UDP has been flying high, because Belizeans have never seen this level of physical change in infrastructure ever before in their lives. Dean Barrow’s only interest is to win elections and have his family and friends with their hands in the cookie jar, but Darrel Bradley is the bold visionary who would not stop because there was noise in the market.
There are a number of sour UDP’s who did not live the spoils of PetroCaribe even as their friends and associates filled up their coffers, with no trickle-down in sight as they mostly import and move their gains into “safe” offshore jurisdictions where they travel to and/or live lavishly. These marginalized will stay home or even vote against them, but the vast majority of UDP’s will fall in line last minute, as they always have.
The UDP Minister of Foreign Affairs has not helped their case any, given the many blunders related to preserving and enhancing the national territorial integrity of Belize, or lack thereof.
This election will see the final flood of PetroCaribe dollars, the end of the UDP (or any Government of Belize) cheap-money spree, and the large amounts of debts are coming due.
IX. THE BOTTOM LINE
The videos of a young Belizean serviceman killed by Guatemalans deep into Belize territory at Caracol….the pictures of young Belizeans facing off with Guatemalan soldiers standing in the Sarstoon river….and the videos of rats in the incubator….are powerful images of incompetence that will be stuck in the Belizean psyche for decades to come.
Belize Territorial Volunteers. Photo by San Pedro Sun
The 1998-2015 era of Belize politics will forever be remembered for its “borrow and spend” signature that served the interests of a very special few PUDP elite that are worse enemies in the day and best friends at night. They play the “normal” people as pawns.
With all that, the upcoming general election can be less issues-based and more determined by financing and campaign/election-day management organization and execution, a battle mostly between the red and blue.
The UDP must outspend the PUP at least 3:1, and continue to prove themselves superior in campaign and election-day organization and execution for Dean Barrow to achieve his three-peat dream, with the same 2:1 margin as per the more recent elections.
The performance of the PUP in the upcoming elections will depend largely on the financial and organizational resources that they can put together. If they can find $25 million between them in cash and kind, and put together an A-team to manage and execute the campaign and election-day, they can win, because the UDP cannot put together a 3:1 spend at that level of commitment. Given that the PM has closed ranks with potential financiers of the PUP, he may have already disarmed his enemy.
No political party has won three general elections in a row since Independence, so the stakes are very high. It will be a challenge to keep the peace if the election results come too close.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Belize Media Group.
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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