Up to 150,000 voters—roughly half the national population—are scheduled to go to the polls on Thursday, February 7, in the 13th national (general) elections. By casting their votes, they will exercise their power to choose which combination of 31 men and women will have control over the people’s money in Belmopan for the next five years.
The voter population has grown substantially over the last half-a-century. Official information from the Elections and Boundaries Department indicates that when the first national elections were held in 1954, a total of 20,801 voted in 9 divisions across Belize. The voter turnout was around 70%. Only people who had reached the age of 21 could vote back then.
Things are vastly different today, and youth participation in the process has made it far more dynamic. In the last general elections held in 2003, 100,353 people voted, and voter turnout was registered at 79.51%. Since November 1979, anyone who has reached the age of 18 can vote.
This was one of the revolutions that the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) fought for in the 1960’s. UBAD gave rise to Amandala, the nation’s leading newspaper, in 1969, and the newspaper’s publisher Evan X Hyde ran unsuccessfully in the 1974 elections.
UBAD was one of at least 12 organizations that have emerged on the political scene over the years. While the dominant parties – the People’s United Party (PUP) and the United Democratic Party (UDP) – are well known, other lesser known names include: National Party (1954, 1957), Honduran Independence Party (1957), National Independence Party (1961), Christian Democratic Party (1961), CUF – Corozal United Front (1974), Toledo Progressive Party (1979), and National Alliance for Belizean Rights.
This year’s elections will see an unprecedented amount of newcomers with at least six new parties entering the race: Vision Inspired by the People (VIP); People’s National Party (PNP), We the People Reform Movement (WTP), and Christians Pursuing Reform Party (CPR) forming the National Belizean Alliance (NBA); National Reform Party (NRP), and Truth Reality and Creation Party.
Likewise, there will be far more voters flocking to the polls this time around. EBD data indicate that the voter population has grown almost 19% since 2003. The final list will be settled next week, around Nomination Day, and it may include thousands more voters than the 150,000 registered at the end of last year.
This is the first time that electors will be voting for 31 area reps to fill the House of Representatives, and they will also vote in a national referendum for an elected Senate.
In 2003, there were 29 electoral divisions and 29 area representatives were chosen. As our population has expanded, so too has the size of the legislature. The number of seats was doubled, from 9 to 18, in 1961. Ten more seats were added in 1984 – the first elections after Independence and the first to see a crushing PUP defeat. In 1993, one more seat was added and now in time for the 2008 elections, two new divisions have made the list.
The ruling PUP and the Opposition UDP are the only parties that have announced full slates to contest all 31 electoral divisions this year. In the last elections, the Opposition won only 7 seats, but UDP Cayo South candidate John Saldivar got a second run in the October by-elections for the seat, and he beat Joaquin Cawich, the son of former area rep Agripino Cawich, giving the UDP one more seat in the House of Representatives.
More election history:
To date, there have been 12 national elections. This year, voters will participate in the 13th national elections in the country’s history. The gap between elections has spanned three to five years. The People’s United Party (PUP) has remained dominant, having won 10 of the 12. The party first tasted defeat in the first elections to come after Independence (1984), and the second came in 1993.
By 1974, the United Democratic Party (UDP), successor to the NIP, was already making significant inroads. The PUP’s vise-grip hold on the legislature gradually loosened with the loss of two seats in ’65, one seat in ’69, and then 6 seats in ’74. Ten years later, the UDP wrenched the reins of power out of the hands of the PUP. That year, in 1984, ten new seats were added to the House, and the UDP won 21 of 28. However, the PUP returned to power in the following elections by garnering 15 of the seats, leaving the Opposition with 13. That was in 1989. The PUP then “influenced” the UDP Toledo West area representative to join them, making it 16 blue seats and 12 red. The tide changed in 1993 from blue to red, and the UDP won again—but by not so impressive a margin as it did in ’84. It successfully regained four seats in the House.
In the last two elections, 1998 and 2003, the PUP resumed its 1950’s trend of landslide victories, having won all but three seats in ’98, and 22 of 28 in 2003. Both these administrations have been led by Fort George rep and PUP party leader Said Musa, the current Prime Minister.
Musa first ran in 1974 as standard bearer for the Fort George division. He lost. In the following elections, though, Musa would outrun his opponent, veteran politician Dean Lindo, who had become established in the division under the UDP. Musa would taste defeat yet again in the subsequent 1984 elections – the UDP’s first term of office. He returned in 1989 to reclaim Fort George, and he has continued to be successful in that division.
Even while Musa’s often controversial administration came under intense scrutiny for corruption and multi-million-dollar “mistakes,” he has been one of the most successful PUP candidates, having netted the second highest number of divisional votes for his party – 75.87%, second only to Albert Division’s Mark Espat, who won with 82.83% in the last general elections.
The PUP has been the only political party to field entire slates for all national elections since 1954, and even though women have been scarce in electoral politics, the PUP has a record of engaging more women in politics than any other party. In fact, the party had the first woman in Parliament.
When national elections began in the 50’s, there were no women contenders. However, Gwendolyn Lizarraga—for whom Gwen Lizarraga High School is named—successfully made a bid for the Pickstock Division in 1961. It was the first year that a woman even ran in the national elections in Belize.
There were five challengers in that division that year, but Lady Lizarraga garnered 69% of the votes. She won again in 69 – this time there was only one contender from the NIP, and Lizarraga continued to net the same percentage of votes in her division. She was the only woman to run in the 1969 elections. She retired after two terms and her son, Adolfo Lizarraga, took her place in the ’74 elections but did not perform as well. Then came Jane Usher in the same division in 1979, who won a modest 53% of votes, and repeated her victory in ’84 by roughly the same margin.
Other women contenders have been: (1) former Chief Elections Officer, Myrtle Palacio, who ran for PUP in Mesop. in 1984 against Curl Thompson, (2) Lita Krohn, PUP Freetown, ’89, against Derek Aikman (the lone woman to run that year), (3) Faith Babb won for UDP in 1993, Collet Division; (4) Juliet Soberanis (Queen Square) and (5) Dorla Bowman (Port), both for PUP, (6) Patty Arceo (Belize Rural South), PUP, 1998, elected to office along with (7) PUP Port Loyola rep, Dolores Balderamos-Garcia. Independent women candidates that year (’98) included Gilda Lewis, Ruth Smith, and Gloria Bowen, but they all lost in the race to Belmopan.
There were five women contenders in the last elections (2003). Balderamos-Garcia and Arceo made another bid for their constituencies, joined by Sylvia Flores, PUP, Dangriga; Diane Haylock, UDP, Pickstock; and Marilyn Williams, UDP, Albert. Only Flores won and she was the first woman parliamentarian to come from outside the Belize District. Six women have been in parliament since 1954, and it took seven years for the first one to get a seat. Five of them were PUP (Lizarraga, Usher, Arceo, Balderamos-Garcia, and Flores) and one was UDP (Babb).
Our count of candidates for this year’s elections exceeds 90, well above the 75 who were nominated in the 2003 race. Going into the 2008 elections, however, only four women candidates have been named: Carolyn Trench Sandiford for Collet (PUP), Merlene Spain for Belize Rural South (PUP), Marta Hendrix of Cayo West (VIP), and Danna Myers for Belize Rural Central (VIP).
(Thanks to Mrs. Myrtle Palacio whose research and documentation provided much of the historical data for this article. Sources include Who and What in Belizean Elections and Selecting Our Leaders Past and Present.)
Did you know?
· Gwendolyn Lizarraga was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. She joined the ranks in 1961 – the third national elections and the first to be contested by women.
· 1998 was the year that most women ran and won in general elections. Nine were in the thick of the competition and two were elected, both of the PUP.
· The current Prime Minister Said Musa lost the first time he ran in Fort George in 1974, and again ten years later, in 1984, but he won over 75% of the votes in the last elections.
· Once upon a time, citizens had to meet certain criteria, such as owning property and getting paid a certain salary, to vote. The result was that in a year like 1948, less than 2,000 people (less than 3% of the population) were able to vote. All that changed with Universal Adult Suffrage in 1951.
· Today, roughly half the population is able to vote. Most of those who can’t are simply not of age.
· The voting age was only changed from 21 years to 18 years in 1978.
· The first national elections were held in 1954. There were only 9 divisions and just over 20,000 voters.
· The PUP won the first seven elections, and a total of 10 since 1954. The UDP (established in 1973) has only won two of the twelve elections to date, the first in 1984 and the second in 1993.
· The General Workers Union and the People’s United Party formed the first national government in 1954 with a coalition against the National Party, which won only one of nine seats.
· In Belize’s 54-year election history, an independent candidate has never won a seat in parliament.
· The PUP made clean sweeps in back-to-back elections of 1957 and 1961, winning 100% of the seats. Those were the only elections that no other political entity entered office.
Some parties/organizations that have entered the political fray:
1. People’s United Party (since 1954)
2. General Workers Union (GWU) formed coalition with PUP in 1954, 1957
3. National Party (1954, 1957)
4. Honduran Independent Party (1957)
5. National Independence Party (1961) (NP and HIP formed the NIP)
6. NIP-PDM (People’s Democratic Movement) (1969)
7. Christian Democratic Party (1961)
8. United Democratic Party (1974) (NIP-PDM coalition formed the UDP)
9. United Black Association for Development (1974)
10. Corozal United Front (1974)
11. Toledo Progressive Party (1979)
12. National Alliance for Belizean Rights
More recent additions:
1. We the People Reform Movement
2. Vision Inspired by the People
3. People’s National Party
4. Christians Pursuing Reform Party
5. National Reform Party
6. Truth Reality and Creation Party
Election Victories (1954 to present)
1. 1954 – PUP 8, NP 1 (Charles Westby was the only Opposition man in the House)
2. 1957 – PUP 9 (100% of seats)
3. 1961 – PUP 18 (100% of seats)
4. 1965 – PUP 16, NIP 2 (Here it was Goldson and Edwin Morey, Toledo North rep.)
5. 1969 – PUP 17, NIP-PDM 1 (Goldson was the only Opposition member in the House)
6. 1974 – PUP 12, UDP 6
7. 1979 – PUP 13, UDP 5
8. 1984 – UDP 21, PUP 7
9. 1989 – PUP 15, UDP 13
10. 1993 – UDP 16, UDP 13
11. 1998 – PUP 26, UDP 3
12. 2003 – PUP 22, UDP 7 (reduced
by one at subsequent by-elections)