The breakfast meeting in February at the Radisson between Lord Ashcroft and Audrey Matura-Shepherd has been the subject of much speculation. The photo of the couple taken by Kim Simplis-Barrow, the wife of the Prime Minister who just happened to be present at the same time, went viral immediately and added to the interest. What on earth could these two high profile individuals have been discussing?
Audrey Matura-Shepherd subsequently explained in Amandala why she had accepted the invitation (sent via Amalia Mai, the CEO of Channel 5 whose proprietor is Michael Ashcroft). Her article outlined the questions to which she wanted answers and to what extent she was satisfied with what she heard. However, she did not explain what Ashcroft hoped to get out of the meeting.
It has now become much clearer what Ashcroft’s interest might have been. In a subsequent interview with Marleni Cuellar at Channel 5, he spoke about the British political system and noted the rise of third parties. He considers this a positive development provided that the third party has a strong individual at the helm capable of exercising national leadership. In his own words: “The important thing with the rise of another party is the credibility of the people around it. You can have a party that has no credibility or run by a person with no credibility and it won’t go very far. It needs some dynamic leader to come forward and actually say we must break down the two party system and then – then – there can be some momentum.”
This interview was conducted before the municipal elections on 4 March. Michael Ashcroft, who has started to return regularly to Belize since the end of last year, did not finance the PUP on this occasion, but had hinted at his willingness to do so in the next general elections subject to certain conditions. The disastrous performance of the PUP now makes that extremely unlikely.
Michael Ashcroft has relied heavily on the judicial system in his efforts to secure victory over the Barrow administration, but he has never ignored Belizean politics. Indeed, his money came very close in 2012 to securing an improbable victory of the PUP over the UDP in the general elections of that year. If the PUP, in his judgement, cannot achieve this in the next general elections, then his only political option to defeat Barrow is to finance a third party that meets his criteria.
This probably explains the meeting with Matura-Shepherd, who has fallen out with the UDP and is most unlikely to join the PUP. She has a high profile, is a well-known national figure and shows a natural gift for leadership. Other third parties in Belize have failed because they cannot achieve the national exposure required to win seats in general elections. However, a third party led by Matura-Shepherd would be a different matter.
Matura-Shepherd is closely tied to the trade unions, which have played such an important part in Belizean politics since 1950. Thus, the news that Amalia Mai has written to the NTUCB indicating that Michael Ashcroft would welcome a meeting is a further indication of the direction of his thinking. Nor should it be forgotten that Audrey Matura-Shepherd is vice-president of NTUCB.
There may well be a case for a new third party in Belize. The two-party system has become very corrupt with large sections of both the political class and the electorate complicit in the buying and selling of votes. In addition, there is the personal enrichment of a number of politicians that angers many Belizeans. The chances of reform from within the two-party system are therefore slim since the two main parties benefit from it when each has its turn in office.
A third party committed to ending, or at least reducing, the endemic corruption of the political system may therefore have a future if certain conditions are met. The most important of these is recognition by a much larger number of voters that their willingness to trade votes for cash, land, scholarships or other favours is not only corrupt, but also counter-productive. In other words, blaming the political class alone is not enough.
Yet there is another very important condition. The third party must itself be above suspicion when it comes to campaign finance. A third party financed by Michael Ashcroft would therefore fail at the first hurdle since he has too many axes to grind when it comes to Belizean politics. Indeed, his only real interest is a third party that can split the vote and prevent UDP from winning an outright majority.
Audrey Matura-Shepherd will therefore need to think very carefully about her next step. If she chooses to lead a new third party, that could be a positive step for Belize. If she accepts Michael Ashcroft’s money, that would be a disaster (both for Belize and for herself personally).
Of course, we could be quite wrong. Perhaps the two of them really did confine their conversation at the Radisson to the agenda outlined by Matura-Shepherd in Amandala; perhaps Ashcroft really does have time for meetings without a defined purpose; perhaps he really is interested in the views of trade union leaders on labour relations. And perhaps pigs can fly!
Barbara and Victor Bulmer-Thomas