At today’s meeting of the National Executive of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), Freetown area representative and current senior deputy leader, Francis Fonseca, was endorsed as both the leader of the PUP and the Opposition in the House, taking over in both posts from former party leader John Briceño, who resigned as PUP leader on October 7, and resigned from the latter post (Opposition Leader) earlier this week upon returning from medical consultations in Mexico City.
Late on Wednesday evening, just after 5 p.m., party chairman Henry Charles Usher had called the press to the party’s Independence Hall headquarters on Queen Street to announce that the party had four nominations and acceptances of nominations on its desk as of the close of nominations minutes earlier.
Usher today informed the media assembled outside of Independence Hall, however, that the other candidates have withdrawn their candidacies.
The party was to have confirmed the candidate list following today’s meeting; the listed names announced by the local television stations during Wednesday night’s newscasts, confirmed by Usher in today’s briefing, are Arthur Saldivar, Belize Rural North standard bearer; deputy party leader, former Toledo East area representative and current standard bearer, Mike Espat; Cayo South standard bearer and party treasurer Julius Espat, and in an “eleventh hour” entry, Fonseca.
Cayo North standard bearer Joseph Mahmud was initially said to have considered running, then later withdrew.
Speculation grew after Hon. Mark Espat, interim leader and initially considered a strong favorite to succeed Briceño after having received support from 30 of 31 constituencies and the Order of Distinguished Service (ODS), announced via a formal notice to party members and the press on Tuesday that he would not seek the nomination.
Espat has been unavailable to the press, including Amandala, all week, but we understand that his reluctance to accept the post stems from the party’s crippling financial problems. Reports are that upwards of $5 million in debts have been accrued, and Espat told his fellow party members that the PUP’s campaign machinery was not “battle-ready,” and that there was much work to be done.
Fonseca, a former Attorney General and Minister of Education, is said to have the support of former party leader and Fort George area representative Hon. Said Musa.
Also at today’s National Executive meeting, the issue of succession to the post of Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly was also decided. Musa had been proposed from as early as this week, but we understand that there was a 3-3 split in the parliamentary caucus – Musa, Corozal Southeast’s Florencio Marin, Jr., and Fonseca in favour of a Musa return, while Espat, Hyde and Briceño were against it.
However, the National Executive today, minus Espat, Hyde, Briceño and standard bearers Oscar Sabido (Cayo West) and Joseph Mahmud (Cayo North), ratified Musa and his name will be given to Governor General Sir Colville Young for appointment for this Friday’s House meeting only. Musa was leader of the Opposition between November of 1996, shortly after succeeding George Price as party leader, and August of 1998, when he became Prime Minister following a landslide PUP victory at the polls.
Chairman Usher confirmed during Wednesday evening’s press briefing that Sir Colville has made contact with Opposition parliamentarians to find out where they stand. It will be his task to appoint the person that, according to the Constitution, commands majority support among the PUP caucus.
A meeting of the House of Representatives has been called for Friday, October 21, ostensibly for a second reading of the Belize Constitution (Ninth Amendment) Bill, 2011, subsequent to consultations with the general public that concluded earlier this month.
After today’s meeting, Fonseca addressed the press outside Independence Hall. He noted that his “difficult, personal” and “long, hard, thought-out” decision was made “just last evening,” and that he feels now, as he did when he first ran in 2008, that he has contributions to make to the party, and that what apparently turned the tide was calls from unidentified members of the family of the late Price, who asked him to “step up”.
Fonseca readily admitted that his new task will not be easy, but insisted that he is now prepared to do the job of convincing the electorate that the PUP is a credible alternative to the UDP in government, with the support of the Executive and standard bearers. He added further that he will be supported by Briceño (who was represented at the meeting by his brother Jaime) and hopes for the support of Espat and Hyde.
According to Fonseca, in speaking with Espat up to the time of the Albert area rep’s decision not to contest the nomination, Espat was prepared to support Fonseca, should he want the post.
Fonseca noted that he had taken himself out of consideration for the position of Interim Leader, and felt that Espat represented the best option, but since he, Espat, has made his decision, the party would move on, and he would work with Espat and the rest of the party.
Fonseca said that a plan will be prepared “in the coming weeks” at the leadership level to review and correct the party’s finances, and he wished immediately to assure the public that that will be done “in a way that does not compromise the fundamental principles of the People’s United Party; there is no going back on that.”
Possible changes in the Executive will also be discussed by the party in the near future, he stated, but added that he was prepared to work with everybody.
Regarding Musa’s brief return to the post of Leader of the Opposition, Fonseca replied to a question from Amandala that he wished to do things the right way, and would so take up the post only after being endorsed at October 29’s National Party Council, and then endorsed by the party’s supporters at the upcoming convention, which will also see the party launch its 2012 municipal election campaign.
Musa, he said, is the most senior PUP parliamentarian, and the National Executive apparently fully ratified his appointment today.
Hon. Hyde issued the following statement to Amandala late this evening: “The days and weeks ahead will be interesting. I will be looking with great expectancy to see whether the party will be making a return to its social justice roots, where we put the common man and woman at the center of all our efforts. Over the last 20 years or so, we have strayed away from those ideals that made us great for so long; we had become too much for the special interests and not enough for the public’s interests. I’m afraid to contemplate what will happen if we don’t make a hasty return to our roots, to the ideals of the original PUP. It cannot be more of the same, not more of what has cost us at the polls in each election since 2006. And that’s the heavy burden our new leader will carry. I pray for the best.”
He would not comment further when asked why he did not attend today’s National Executive meeting, or whether Fonseca could count on his support.
We finally managed to reach Hon. Espat this evening, and he issued this brief reply to our queries via text message: “I learned of Francis’s endorsement via email this afternoon. Of course, I wish him well and look forward to hearing his plan to free the party from the grip and presence of those responsible for its electoral woes.”
There was no mention of why Espat was absent from today’s meeting.