Although he gained just a little over 41 percent of the total votes cast by 2700 plus delegates at Sunday’s leadership convention of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), Hon. Johnny Briceño, the area representative for Orange Walk Central, won a great victory for himself, his slate, and his Orange Walk base. When you consider all the intensity involved with this campaign and convention, and all the issues and history in play, it will take weeks to get a complete sense of exactly what it was that took place in Belmopan on Sunday. So.
We told you in our editorial page last week that this convention would be a historic exercise in political democracy in Belize. There were more than four times as many delegates appointed by the PUP’s 31 electoral constituencies to make the leadership choice as had ever made such a decision in major party history in Belize.
In fact, in March of 2008 Mr. Briceño had won a much smaller such PUP convention, defeating Hon. Francis Fonseca, the Freetown area representative, by a narrow margin of 330 votes to 310. On Sunday, Johnny received 1125 votes, while his opponents, Mr. Fonseca, who was the incumbent Party Leader, and the Lake Independence area representative, Hon. Cordel Hyde, received 918 and 673 votes, respectively.
In the republics around us, such three candidate leadership races usually go to a runoff between the top two candidates. There was no such runoff provision in the rules for Sunday’s PUP leadership convention, but the chances are that Mr. Briceño would have been able to attract the majority of Mr. Hyde’s voters in a runoff. We say this because in the 2008 leadership convention, Cordel Hyde had supported Mr. Briceño and had afterwards been appointed one of his two Senior Deputy Leaders. Still, no one can say for certain how a runoff would have played out.
Any understanding of the intensity of Sunday’s race has to include the fact that the faction of the PUP which supported Mr. Fonseca in the March 2008 leadership convention, decided to begin publishing a newspaper in 2009, The National Perspective, whose primary purpose was to attack, on a weekly basis, Party Leader Briceño, Cordel Hyde and Mark Espat, Mark being Johnny’s other Senior Deputy Leader, and, for good measure, the publisher of this newspaper. The so-called “old guard” of the PUP, which had sponsored Francis for leadership, had decided to continue the fight after the 2008 leadership convention, and they made Mr. Briceño’s tenure as PUP Leader a shaky and expensive one. Finally, having hemorrhaged financially for too long, Mr. Briceño decided to resign as PUP Leader in October of 2011. He claimed illness. Mr. Fonseca was appointed PUP Leader the following month by an executive cartel, and then The National Perspective immediately ceased publication.
After he lost his second general election as PUP Leader on November 4, 2015 (having lost village council elections, national municipal elections, and bye-elections in between 2012 and 2015), Francis announced he would step down as Party Leader and the PUP would organize a leadership convention for January 31, 2016. In the weeks following, speculation surrounded Hon. Julius Espat (Cayo South), Hon. Florencio Marin, Jr. (Corozal Southeast), Hon. Kareem Musa (Caribbean Shores), and Senator Lisa Shoman as possible leadership candidates, but by the end of November it had become clear that John Briceño and Cordel Hyde were the only two serious candidates. At that point there was a movement, apparently old guard in composition, to draft Francis and have him run in the leadership convention. Johnny, Cordel, and Francis were duly nominated for the post of PUP Leader on December 15, 2015.
Francis and Johnny soon presented slates, since other positions were up for election at the convention, most prominently four District Deputy Leaders, Chairman, and National Communications Director. With the Fonseca slate challenging the incumbent, Henry Charles Usher, with Toledo West’s Hon. Oscar Requeña for the post of Chairman, Usher joined the Briceño slate as its chairmanship candidate. Henry Charles’ brother, Kareem Musa, remained as a Fonseca-slate Deputy Leader candidate, while Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, first cousin to Henry Charles’ mother, remained as Francis’ candidate for National Communications Director. Godfrey Smith, former PUP Pickstock area rep, who was actually Francis’ convention campaign manager in 2008, seriously campaigned for Johnny in 2016.
Cordel Hyde’s considered opinion was that the new PUP Leader would be in a better position to unify the quarreling party after the convention if that Leader was not committed to a slate. Thus, Cordel ran only for PUP Leader: no slate.
Despite the fact that the PUP has now lost three general elections in a row, and has not won any kind of election since March of 2003, there remains an arrogant streak in the party. There are people who seem to believe that all they have to do is to call out Mr. Price’s name, and they will enter the kingdom of political heaven. This is basically the PUP faction that did not accept the result of the March 2008 leadership faction and did their best to overturn it by means of The National Perspective. On Sunday, the PUP middle level leadership and PUP base repeated their March 2008 statement, and they voiced that statement in a more resounding fashion. In last weekend’s editorial, we predicted that the PUP would come out of Sunday’s convention with a burst of energy, creating a stronger challenge for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP). We stand by that position, but we must remind you, as well as remind ourselves, that the PUP old guard is not only arrogant: it is manifestly, almost pathologically, stubborn.
Insofar as the Cordel Hyde candidacy, which we supported, is concerned, the vote of the PUP delegates indicated that they were not prepared for a return to the PUP‘s social justice roots. In this age of neoliberalism in Belize, the social justice call is a relatively, intrinsically, militant one.
Although he has been involved with such reform movements in the PUP as G-7 in 2004 and G-11 in 2015, Johnny Briceño is a neoliberal. A skeptic could view his return to PUP leadership as “same old, same old,” as it is said. Because the PUP old guard is also neoliberal, it is sometimes difficult to figure out the vitriol between the Briceño and Fonseca camps.
For years the PUP old guard blamed Mark Espat for anything and everything that went wrong inside the party. Using Mark Espat as their scapegoat enabled a cynical, megalomaniac section of the PUP to avoid blame for some egregious political blunders, such as Lake I in 2012. Well now, the people of the PUP have spoken, and if the PUP truly believe in power to the people, there are some people who better line up to start kissing the ring, Johnny Briceño’s ring. Call the names, and we will whistle …