BELIZE CITY, Mon. Nov. 2, 2015–Almost 200,000 electors have the power to decide on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, whether they will give the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) an unprecedented third term in office or whether they will return the Musa-Fonseca administration, booted out of office in 2008, to another 5-year term on Independence Hill.
A rushed political campaign has sparked desperation in some camps, and Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai reported that armed, masked men had gone to her home in an apparent attempt to intimidate her in carrying out her electoral duties and rumors were abuzz that she had been kidnapped—a backward turn of events in post-independent Belize.
Tamai has also been under pressure from the Opposition People’s United Party over allegations that she had authorized the signing of blank proxy forms for UDP chairman, Alberto August – allegations which she has vigorously denied.
When early elections were called last month—the earliest elections since the term of office was upped from 3.5 years before Independence to 5 years after—it seemed that the Opposition (whose camp had been recently divided over leadership issues but which had recently reconciled) hardly stood a chance. As the weeks have progressed, though, political observers have come to the conclusion that the race will be far more interesting than they had thought—with flare-ups already erupting in Orange Walk North.
Prayers have been offered by Belize’s religious community for the best possible outcome for Belize, and for a peaceful day on Wednesday, even while political violence may be brewing in certain hotspots.
The camps of both the incumbent Gaspar Vega and his challenger Ramon “Munchi” Cervantes, Jr., are pointing the finger at each other in the murder of Ramon Cervantes, Sr., which happened last year. Vega, who was first accused of the murder, had filed a defamation suit against Cervantes.
Last week, in the preliminary inquiry into the case of the three men accused of the Cervantes murder, one of the men alleged that the younger Cervantes had ordered the hit on his own father. Campaign signs were allegedly put up publicly making those charges against both Cervantes and Vega.
Events that unfolded in Belize Rural Central over the weekend reveal just how intense the race has become, with the mass parties having turned, in some instances, into warring factions on the ground. (See story about the dispute between the camps of the UDP’s Beverly Castillo and the PUP’s Dolores Balderamos-Garcia elsewhere in this edition of Amandala.)
There are 90 contenders in the race: 31 for the UDP, 31 for the PUP and 25 for the Belize Progressive Party (BPP), a coalition of third parties which has merged to challenge the UDP and the PUP, which the BPP says have each had 17 years of rule which has brought us failed systems and structures, and three independent candidates, including former beauty queen Samantha Carlos, who is now challenging the PUP’s Johnny Briceño, the BPP’s Philip de la Fuente, and the UDP’s Denni Grijalva in Orange Walk Central.
Still, the ruling UDP is campaigning on the slogan: “The Best is Yet to Come!”, while the PUP has borrowed this newspaper’s “Power to the People” mantra—a black power chant popularized by the late Nelson Mandela.
As for the BPP—which has fielded enough candidates to be able to form a new government if at least 16 of their candidates land a very unlikely, albeit possible win—its national anti-corruption campaign, dubbed “8867 TODAY. 8867 TOMORROW. 8867 FOREVER” (representing the amount of square miles which legally constitutes the land mass of Belize), focuses on the front-burner issue of Guatemala’s unfounded territorial claim over Belize and the manner in which both the PUP and the UDP have treated the matter.
Political pundits tell us, though, that this election will be about the core bread and butter issues, such as cost of living, employment and the economy, and whether people are happy with the way the ruling party has addressed these fundamentals or whether there is any hope that the Opposition (or the BPP) will do better.
Among the prominent seats to watch will be Freetown, where the once embattled PUP leader, Francis Fonseca, who has recently led a reconciliation of rival factions in his party, will be seeking a fourth consecutive win. Although Fonseca had an easy first win in that division in 2003, when his party won a second consecutive term of office, the race was much more intense in the subsequent elections.
In 2008, he won by a razor thin margin, edging out the UDP’s Michael Peyrefitte by 16 votes while netting less than 50% of votes cast; but in 2012, when he was challenged by Lee Mark Chang, the margin was 150 votes.
This time around, in 2015, Fonseca is being challenged by former Financial Secretary Dr. Carla Barnett, who has been running a strong campaign on the ground. The BPP’s Elizabeth Dena has also entered the race.
On Nomination Day, UDP leader Dean Barrow told reporters that he is confident that Barnett will unseat Fonseca. When the votes are in on Wednesday, we will know where the sentiments of Fonseca’s constituents lie.
The eyes of the electorate will also be on the watch in the Caribbean Shores division, where two-term Belize City mayor, Darrell Bradley, has thrown his hat in the ring as he attempts to make his foray from local to national politics.
Under Bradley’s administration, the City has seen unprecedented infrastructural works, with over 100 streets having been cemented; however, some business persons have also complained that the restructuring of the trade license regime and the property tax assessments have negatively impacted them. The private sector has been successful in pressuring City Hall to rethink and reorganize the trade license regime to create a more enabling environment for business, but concerns over the high crime rate which has prevailed in the City remain.
Bradley is being challenged by Kareem Musa, son of former PUP Prime Minister Said Musa, who will be seeking re-election after four consecutive victories in that division. Musa had won in 1979 but lost the seat to Dean Lindo in 1984. On Wednesday, he will be challenged by the UDP’s Roger Espejo, who has won two terms as a city councilor in Belize City, and the BPP’s Rollin Powery, a newcomer who is also trying to break Musa’s winning streak.
Meanwhile, the PUP’s Cordel Hyde, who had opted out of the last elections to be with his critically ill son, returns to unseat the UDP’s Mark King, who recently made public threats about his plan to “get rid of” the PUP, Hyde and his family, as well as the Kremandala establishment.
Cordel Hyde had been the area rep for Lake I since he entered the 1998 race and he has remained undefeated at the polls with three consecutive victories.
In the 2012 elections, King won by a small margin over last-minute entrant Martin Galvez, who replaced his sister Yolanda Shackron, who was disqualified as the PUP’s candidate for Lake I because she held US nationality in addition to her Belizean nationality. King netted the smallest percentage of votes since the division was created in the run-up to the 1984 elections.
In the last elections, voters chose all UDP reps on the Southside, since two critical PUP seats, those of Lake I and Albert, were vacated.
Whereas Galvez unsuccessfully tried to retain Lake I for the PUP, Albert was defended by David Craig after Mark Espat opted not to seek re-election. This time, in 2015, two persons from the Espat camp have emerged as rival political contenders in the Albert: former BTB director Tracey Taegar-Panton, and Paul Thompson.
On the northside of Belize City, only Francis Fonseca and Said Musa, who were incidentally two of the most controversial members of the Musa-Fonseca administration, retained their seats in the City. They will both be among the 88 horses at the gate this Wednesday, trying for yet another win.
The PUP’s Francis Smith will make a second attempt to unseat the much-vilified Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, who has served as the Barrow administration’s front-man as Foreign Affairs Minister, in talks between Belize and Guatemala. The vote in Pickstock could be a mini-referendum on the manner in which Elrington has handled Belize-Guatemala relations, particularly in the UDP’s second term of office.
Interestingly enough, Elrington will also be challenged by no other than the BPP “head honcho,” Patrick Rogers, leader of the new alliance which has made Belize’s sovereignty their chief campaign issue.
However, Barrow has also said that Rogers is the cousin of Smith’s sister-in-law, suggesting a hidden alliance between at least factions of the BPP and the PUP. The UDP leader has said that Sedi will retain his seat.
In the last general election, the strongest third party candidates, among them PG stalwart Wil Maheia of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, received less than 10% of the votes. Wednesday’s vote will also give an indication of whether the professed supporters of the movement will actually back them up with their votes.
In post-independent Belize, no third party candidate has netted enough votes to put them in Parliament and the two mass parties continue to dominate the political landscape in the Jewel.
Of the 13 Belize District seats, the PUP won a small minority of 3, but the PUP actually won more seats than the UDP in the districts. It was only as a consequence of the recent by-elections that the out-district seats became evenly split between the UDP and the PUP.
In Orange Walk, the Opposition won 3 of 4 seats, with only Deputy PM Gaspar “Gapi” Vega bringing in a victory for the ruling UDP. It remains to be seen how the race in Vega’s constituency will turn out this time around.
Out west, in Cayo, where the UDP won 4 of 6 seats in 2012, including Belmopan, and added Cayo North in by-elections held earlier this year, the eyes of the electorate will also be watching to see who will emerge with the majority of seats this time around.
In the northernmost district of Corozal, there was an even 2-2 split of seats in 2012. There has been a targeted campaign against Health Minister Pablo Marin, whose embattled Ministry of Health has seen its share of scandals, from the spate of newborn deaths at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital due to germ contamination of the NICU, to the most recent incident, which went viral on social media, of a rat biting a newborn in an incubator at the Western Regional Hospital.
UDP leader, Barrow—who has retained the Queen’s Square seat with wide margins over his challengers since the division was created in1984—has said that Marin’s chances won’t be harmed at the polls on Wednesday.
Way down south, where the PUP have been dominant, the question will be whether the PUP’s Anthony Sabal will be able to reclaim the seat which the UDP’s Frank Mena won in the most recent by-elections, triggered by the early resignation of the PUP’s Ivan Ramos. Before Ramos’ resignation, the PUP held all 4 seats in the south—Dangriga, Stann Creek West, Toledo East and Toledo West.
The BPP’s Wil Maheia, who garnered only 7% of the votes at the polls in the 2012 election, remains steadfast and he is going back to the polls to challenge the PUP incumbent Mike Espat and the UDP’s Peter Eden Martinez.
The results from Toledo West, where the Maya communities have finally gotten closure after decades of litigation to recognize and give effect to traditional land rights, should also be interesting.
When this paper hits the streets, voters will have only a few hours more to go before they decide “with the stroke of that indelible pencil,” which 31 candidates of the 88 will become the men and women who will form the next political administration of Belize. Voters will write a new chapter in our political history.