Editorial — 11 August 2018
Lame duck?

Organized political parties were non-existent in Belize prior to 1950, and the main event which prompted political awakening was Governor Sir Ronald Garvey using his reserve powers in the Legislative Council on December 31, 1949 to devalue the dollar.

Apart from this event, there were other underlying factors which contributed, like: (a) the General Workers Union receiving its first successes and recognition during 1947 to 1949; (b) THE BELIZE BILLBOARD airing the cause of labour and the masses; (c) the objecting of the Legislative Council to the status of financial dependence of Belize on the United Kingdom; and (d) steps toward self-determination exhibited by the committee working since 1947 on constitutional proposals for adult suffrage, an elected majority in the Legislature, and an elected Executive.

– from an article entitled “A History of Political Parties in Belize,” by Lawrence Vernon, pg. 239 in READINGS IN BELIZEAN HISTORY (Second Edition), edited by Lita Hunter Krohn, May 1987  

The very first time in our modern political history that Belize had a lame duck government, which is to say, a national government that everyone knew was doomed to be voted out of office at the very first opportunity, was in 1996, we would say.

The United Democratic Party (UDP) Cabinet Ministers of Prime Minister, Dr. Manuel Esquivel, themselves knew what was going to happen as soon as general elections were called, so much so that they cynically decided to stay in power three months longer than their five-year term limit.

Looking back, we can see now that Dr. Esquivel’s government had made itself serious enemies from both Belize’s boardrooms and Belize’s bases, from the socio-economic top to the socio-economic bottom. One would have thought that that Esquivel/Barrow administration would have been less arrogant and less venomous than it was, since their margin of victory in June of 1993 had been razor thin, and the UDP had actually polled 2,000 fewer votes than the defeated PUP had.

But, Belize’s system of governance is skewed, in that it does not matter how narrow a party’s victory margin is, the fact is that the first-past-the-post system we have, always results in powerful governments and arrogant ruling parties.  From the introduction of the so-called Ministerial system in 1961, all four Prime Ministers, two UDP and two from the People’s United Party (PUP), have  castrated the parliamentary system by ensuring that the Cabinet outnumbers the total of legislators in the House. We have executive government. Once the Cabinet votes for any bill in the Cabinet room, it is not possible for the ruling party’s backbenchers to cooperate with the Opposition party’s area representatives in the House to defeat that bill.

We often say that our system of government is monarchical, because, while the Cabinet is all-powerful, the Prime Minister singularly rules over Cabinet, in the sense that he and he alone appoints Cabinet Ministers. The Ministers are deathly afraid of losing their portfolios, so they are generally sycophantic when they face the Prime Minister.

When the Belizean people reach the point of being totally fed up with a ruling party, the Belizean people do not have the option of a no-confidence vote in the House to end the life of that government. All the Belizean people can do is wait out the days, the weeks, the months, the years until general election, as we were forced to do between 1996 and 1998. Periods of lame duck administration are terrible times for the economy, because no one wants to invest, people are holding on to their money. During lame duck, the atmosphere of economic depression becomes contagious, so much so that the shrinking of economic activity becomes exponential.

It may be true that Belize experienced three years of lame duck PUP government between February 2005 and February 2008. Can you imagine that, three years of lame duck? Still, there was so much liquidity in the economic system because of the so-called “growth economics” between1998 and 2004, that the shrinking of the Belizean economy during those three lame duck years (2005-2008) was not as traumatic as what we are experiencing today. Dean Barrow’s UDP administration is looking more and more lame duck in August of 2018, more than two years before general elections are due.

The G-7 rebels inside the Said Musa/Ralph Fonseca PUP regime who challenged Musa/Fonseca in August of 2004, have been maligned by the neoliberals in their own party, and the UDP, for its part, has certainly not rushed to their defence. But G-7 succeeded in correcting some excesses, and in so doing G-7 assisted Belize in riding out the American and international financial collapse in 2007 and 2008. There were people in the G-7 who risked their Ministerial portfolios, and there were people who lost same.

It does not appear that anything can happen which would spark any kind of similar rebellion in the present Barrow Cabinet. Everyone is holding on for dear life. To be sure, Prime Minister Barrow is choking the private sector with taxes in order to ensure that his Cabinet Ministers, and all the UDP cronies and apparatchiks, are happy. The Belizean economy, in other words, is paying the price for UDP happiness. And there is really nothing any of us can do about it. Meanwhile, desperation at Belize’s base is being reflected in our crime and violence statistics. This is real.

Now we don’t necessarily know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this UDP government is lame duck, because there are yet unanswered questions about the Briceño PUP. But, it may actually be that the Barrow government is in worse than lame duck mode: Belize may really be experiencing catalepsy in early August of 2018. At the very least, we Belizeans seem to be feeling helpless to the point of angry frustration.

The system of governance which Belize subscribes to has mandated that the UDP must govern Belize until November of 2020, or until when the UDP feels like giving up power. The present situation is complicated by the fact that UDP Leader/Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, is himself definitely lame duck, in that he is retiring from political office when the life of this UDP administration comes to an end. Theoretically, Mr. Barrow has to hand over leadership of the UDP, and the Prime Minister-ship of Belize, in time for a new UDP Leader to mobilize the party for the next general election, scheduled to be held by November 2020.

It does appear to this newspaper, however, that within the ruling party itself there is a quantum of uncertainty about who exactly the next UDP Leader/Prime Minister will be. That uncertainty has reached the point where the attorney/Senator Michael Peyrefitte, a former Speaker of the House who does not even hold a seat in the House of Representatives, is being proposed in credible UDP circles as an option to the two controversial, supposedly leading choices – Collet’s Patrick Faber and Belmopan’s John Saldivar.

Sophisticated governance constitutions in other nation-states, specifically proportional representation constitutions, allow for changes in government at almost any time. In Belize on the other hand, we, the people, are shackled by the present governance system.

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that Prime Minister Barrow becomes incapacitated to a significant extent at some point before the ruling party clarifies its leadership succession. As it stands, Mr. Faber would succeed Mr. Barrow, but there are big people in the UDP who would not accept a Faber leadership without making a fuss. If there is unrest in the ruling party, which is to say, the Government of Belize, what are the rest of us Belizeans then to think, or do?

The upcoming September celebrations usually introduce some bread and circuses anesthesia into the suffering body politic, but this year the specter of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum haunts both the Tenth of September and the Independence Day (September 21) celebrations. If the victory was so glorious and significant in 1798, why are we so existentially threatened by this 2019 referendum? And if Belize is independent, sovereign, and territorially intact, why are we being pressured to roll the dice, with The Jewel at stake, on April 10, 2019?

Lame duck, cataleptic, or divided, the ruling UDP has no answers for the Belizean economy, apart from submissive, foreign-controlled tourism. When he exhausted the Petrocaribe monies on infrastructure, P.M. Barrow threw away his last chance to ride off heroically into the sunset. Today, the police are at their wit’s end. Once more, and perhaps more dangerously than ever before, our system of governance has failed us in Belize.

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Deshawn Swasey

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