Despite their visibly well-oiled electoral machinery, it is possible for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) to lose Wednesday’s general elections. Were the UDP to lose, this newspaper would view the national vote as an expression of the Belizean people’s dissatisfaction after two consecutive terms of UDP rule.
Prime Minister and UDP Leader, Hon. Dean Barrow, is calling Wednesday’s elections sixteen months early, which is to say, he could have extended his party’s term of office until March of 2017, and beyond that. The present UDP was elected to a five-year term of office in March of 2012. For the record, the Manuel Esquivel UDP, in a disturbing display of pique and spite, apparently because they believed the Belizean people were itching to vote them out of office, extended their term of office two months beyond five years in 1998. Mr. Barrow was Deputy Prime Minister in that UDP administration. Now, in the quest for a third consecutive term, unprecedented in Belize’s post-independence era, he comes to the voters sixteen months early.
In 2015, the UDP, fattened by Petrocaribe loan funds, have easily defeated the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) in three different elections – January, Cayo North bye-election; March, national municipal elections; and July, Dangriga bye-election. The PUP, more and more beset by a division between its neoliberal and social justice factions, were clearly not in the best of form. As early as after the UDP victory in the national municipals, and increasingly after the Dangriga bye-election victory, UDP Cabinet Ministers were publicly calling for early general elections to take advantage of an Opposition seemingly in disarray.
Even though Mr. Barrow resisted the March and July agitations from his Cabinet and his party, his late September decision to dissolve the House still meant that this Wednesday’s elections would be sixteen months early. This has never been done before in Belize. A confident PUP called general elections fifteen months early (remember “building on success”?) in June of 1993, and suffered a shocking upset by a UDP/NABR coalition. Since then, Belizean political observers have wondered if there is something about early elections which spooks Belizean voters. The general elections called by Mr. Barrow in March of 2012 were actually eleven months early, and his heavily favored UDP almost lost to the PUP. Are Belizean voters suspicious of early generals?
Before the 2012 general elections, if we remember correctly, PUP Leader Francis Fonseca began calling for four-year terms of office, instead of the present five. There are some observers who feel that Mr. Barrow’s 2012 and 2015 early election decisions are based on his private endorsement of the four-year term, but this remains mere speculation.
Earlier this year, the then UDP Stann Creek West standard bearer, Melvyn Hulse, lost his party standing and resigned after being taped indicting Party Leader Barrow for being obsessed with a third term. The circumstances of such an obsession are intriguing. Mr. Barrow, 64, is plagued with serious, chronic back problems which have not improved after surgery in Los Angeles a couple years ago. The issue of his leadership succession is relevant, because Mr. Barrow is easily a multimillionaire and obviously enjoys his frequent junkets in the United States. Delicate health and established financial security are reasons why Mr. Barrow should be considering retirement instead of a third term. Does he really intend to serve a full term? What may complicate Mr. Barrow’s thinking is the fact that the next most powerful force in the UDP, Deputy Premier Gapi Vega, is presently embattled for different reasons, and for these reasons may not be a viable leadership option, even though he has proven he is more powerful on the ground than the other leadership hopefuls – Education Minister Patrick Faber and National Security Minister John Saldivar.
We pointed out in an editorial two weeks ago that Partridge Street has reason to be angry with the UDP. Mr. Barrow allowed UDP Junior Minister Mark King to disrespect us publicly. In so doing, Mr. Barrow himself disrespected an institution which is older than the UDP itself. Kremandala’s individual institutional anger is hardly as important as the impressions/opinions of the national bulk of Belizean voters. But, there are some big issues out there amongst the people. Mr. Barrow has refused to install the 13th Senator. He has found excuses not to activate the Integrity Commission. The Prime Minister has not facilitated the work of the Public Accounts Committee. The leadership of the ruling UDP bullied and vilified patriotic Belizeans, most notably the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV),while behaving in an appeasing manner towards Guatemalan military and government officials whose aggressive rhetoric and behavior between February and August enraged national Belizeans.
And then we come to corruption. In the last quarter century, public corruption has become a big post-independence issue. Belize is a small place: everybody knows everybody else’s business. There are many politicians and political cronies who make no secret of the fact that they view political office as a ticket to personal wealth. Mr. Barrow has always presented and projected himself, however, as a politician who is scrupulously honest. This may be so, although the Opposition’s charges of nepotism have basis. What is for sure is that the weeds of cronyism and Ministerial corruption have flourished in Mr. Barrow’s administrative garden. His impassioned plea, “For God’s sake, stop it,’” echoes in our ears. Please, Mr. Barrow, the power of the Prime Minister is practically limitless in our political system. These babies are your babies.
This newspaper has not campaigned against Mr. Barrow and the UDP because, as we have written, we cannot vouch for those who would replace him. The fact of the matter is that Belize’s political system give too much power to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is himself then held to ransom by the political party which has installed him in office. That is why when Junior Minister King let the cat out of the bag – “UDP’s first, Belizeans second …..” – Prime Minster Barrow could not bring himself to denounce him publicly. Regardless of his self-proclaimed purity, Mr. Barrow made Mephistophelian deals, all politicians make such deals, to acquire power. Belize’s political system has historically allowed various imbeciles, incompetents, and charlatans to be elected to the House of Representatives. Belize’s Prime Ministers routinely endorse undesirables, as long as they are in the Prime Minister’s party. Politics, that is the business they chose. Mr. Barrow, you are no exception.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.