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Can Johnny Briceño unite and ignite the PUP?

Posted: February 16, 2016. 8:35 a.m. CST.

By BBN Staff: Newly elected People’s United Party (PUP) leader Johnny Briceño was sworn in as opposition leader last week, and now the real task begins – rebuilding and uniting an embattled party which has been in constant inner turmoil for the past few years. John Briceño

Belize’s most storied party has been reduced to punchlines in that time, synonymous with losing, and divided into rival factions. Briceño’s own ascension came from one of the rivaling factions. Now, however, the PUP hopes to put those differences aside and move forward in solidarity toward its ultimate goal – resuming office in Belmopan as the next government.

It is a daunting task and the road ahead for Briceño will not be smooth. He has to mend fences that seem unrepairable because the bitter campaigns that led up to the PUP leadership convention was born out of animosity that carried over from Briceño’s first stint as party leader, when many feel he was forced out by the so called “old guard”.

Briceño, however, has admitted that he has learned from his mistakes during that time and will be approaching his role as party leader with a tougher stance on dissent, especially public dissent. For Briceño, the solution is simple enough – rid the party of those unwilling to accept his leadership, however, as he well knows, that is a task easier said than done.

Briceño’s opponent, Francis Fonseca, was the old guard candidate of choice. It is widely believed that Fonseca’s decision to contest the leadership convention just weeks after announcing his retirement from electoral politics following the party’s defeat at the polls was influenced by that group. The move was seen as a last shot attempt by the old guard to hold on to what bit of power is left to hold on to.

The public, however, has made it clear that it will not support the PUP as most recently configured and a drastic change was in order. Many questions still remain as to whether or not Briceño is the kind of change big enough to make the PUP competitive at the polls again.

To do this, the PUP needs a boost of finances coupled with steady positive coverage. Seems simple enough, but both have been elusive under the previous leadership. It is thought, though, that Briceño was the most suitable of the three candidates in the leadership convention to attract campaign finances. The good public relations, however, is another matter.

For the PUP to get the kind of positive coverage the party desperately needs, there needs to be unity, or at least the presentation of unity. Party disagreements will need to be settled privately and those that differ in opinion will need to be made examples of. Briceño will need to take a page from Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s book and rule his party with an iron fist, no-nonsense style. It remains to be seen if his personality can muster this strong-headed approach to leadership.

Briceño also indicated that before the convention former party leader Said Musa assured that whoever emerged victorious at the convention would be given fair access to party assets including the Belize Times and Vibes Radio, both of which are in his name. According to Briceño, there has been discussions to have both assets transferred to a trust in the party’s name. This is a move Briceño may want to make sooner rather than later.

The country needs a viable opposition and the PUP hasn’t been viewed as a viable option since it was ousted in 2008. The Belize Progressive Party (BPP) has emerged as a possible third option but clearly still has a long way to go before being considered as a threat in Belize’s political landscape. If Briceño cannot unite the PUP, however, and if the continues to be divided and splinters, it may very well be the end of the “grand ole party” and the rise of something new.

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