Three decades and seven years ago, our fathers and mothers brought forth on this Central American isthmus, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
– (a paraphrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863)
Extraordinary anticipation and excitement are building for next Wednesday’s national municipal elections in Belize, and to a great extent it is because of their similarity, in this case and in their timing, to the so-called mid-term elections in the United States. The Americans elect a President every four years, but two years after each Presidential election, they hold the mid-terms in order to elect Senators and Congressmen/women. The mid-terms offer the two major American political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, a chance to see how the political winds are blowing; because of their timing, the mid-terms offer voters the opportunity to express a ballot opinion on their Presidential choice of two years before, and his performance in office.
Belize’s ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) would like for voters to focus next Wednesday exclusively on local issues, such as streets, drains, roundabouts, and infrastructure. The Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), for its part, has seized the opportunity next Wednesday represents to direct voters’ attention to some critical national issues, the most striking being galloping Barrow administration corruption, bloody violence and crime, staggering public debt, and a collapsing Belizean economy.
The organization which publishes this newspaper is 49 years old, and what we have, we believe, is a record of building Belizean institutions. We founded the UBAD Party and the Amandala newspaper (Belize’s leading newspaper since 1981) in 1969. We built KREM Radio in 1989, and KREM Television in 2003. We opened the visionary African and Indian (Mayan) Studies Library in the year 2000. We put together the Kremandala Raiders, a championship semi-pro basketball team, in 1992. In 1991, we began what has become the second greatest cycling race in Belize’s history – the KREM New Year’s Day Cycling Classic. Since 1972, we have sponsored various football and basketball teams in Belize. We do not publicize our assistance to needy students in the community. Over the decades, we have created more jobs than anyone else on Belize City’s Southside except for Bowen & Bowen, which, incidentally, is a creation of the giant transnational company – Coca Cola. Kremandala, as you know, is 100 percent indigenous, 100 percent Belizean.
Along Kremandala’s journey, there have been notable occasions where we viewed general elections in Belize as having existential significance for us. Those occasions were in 1979, 1984, and 1998, when we indicated to our readers that we needed for them to vote a certain way, because a result other than the one we desired, would threaten this newspaper’s existence.
In our editorial this week Tuesday, and with respect to next Wednesday’s national municipal elections, we did not go quite that far, but we indicated our clear desire for a message of reprimand to be sent electorally to the UDP administration of Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Dean O. Barrow.
In 1979, 1984, and 1998, we were confident that we represented 4 percent of Belize’s voters, and we believed that that 4 percent could affect the election results materially. We are not as confident about next Wednesday’s municipals for two reasons. In the first instance, we are not certain to what extent the Belize Progressive Party (BPP) will distract our 4 percent. And, in the second instance, we’re not sure how much influence we have on 2018’s younger, “digitized” Belizean voters.
With that said, we want to discuss election day and counting night. The final results of next Wednesday’s election will not come in until Thursday morning, because our dedicated, hardworking public officers will have extra work to do in the counting rooms: this is because of an animal called the “split ballot.” The split ballot only occurs in municipal elections, where voters are allowed to choose from different political parties to complete their slate of 7 or 10 councilors, as the case may be. Split ballots are a counting nightmare.
You can get an early read on the elections, however, if you monitor the level of voter turnout. If you see that the turnout is low, because voter enthusiasm is limited, then that will favor the incumbent UDP. In an election where voter turnout is low, election day machinery becomes the deciding factor. In the matter of election day machinery, the UDP has to be given the edge. Not only are they on a winning streak in national municipal and general elections since 2006, their decade-long control of public funds and national resources translates to oil for their machinery – cold cash. You saw that on nomination day last Wednesday: money was not a problem for the ruling party, and it will not be a problem for the UDP next Wednesday.
If, on the other hand, you see voters coming out on their own on Wednesday morning and being willing to stand in lines in order to express their citizen’s opinion, then you will know that the elections will be competitive. At this newspaper, we expect next Wednesday’s election to be competitive, because the mid-term nature of their timing on Belize’s election calendar, adds spice to the voting process.
Elections are expensive processes, but the more elections a country has, the more vibrant is the democratic climate of that country. Consider the situation in The Jewel in October 2016, which was less than a year after the November 2015 general election gave the UDP a 19-12 advantage in the House of Representatives. Prime Minister Barrow had won a third consecutive term, unprecedented in post-independence Belize, and he apparently began to experience Alexander The Great syndrome – no more worlds to conquer. The UDP Cabinet began to run amok. The big boys and big girls of the red were riding high and living large. There was no Integrity Commission. There was no Public Accounts Committee. The corruption in the Immigration Ministry was wild, so wild as to threaten Belize’s relations with the mighty United States of America. The Lands Department was a crazy “hot bed of corruption.” Millions in public funds were lost. There was no election on the horizon to provide a message-sending opportunity for the Belizean electorate. The humble teachers of Belize had to step into the breach. Their Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) took the governance bull by the horns: they went on national strike.
The BNTU strike was a more critical moment in Belize’s history than most of us realized. A violent, lunatic element in the UDP wanted to confront the teachers in Belize City’s streets and drive them back into the classrooms. Had that occurred, then Belize ran the risk of a civil uprising, because the people of Belize were supportive of the teachers. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, as the saying goes, and the teachers were able to make their point. The teachers had to make that point when they did, because there were no elections scheduled until March 7, 2018.
The socio-economic climate in Belize is tense and explosive. We all saw that a few months ago when the teenager Kelvin Usher disappeared and the Belizean people felt he may have been killed by members of our security forces. Why would the Belizean people have felt that way? Well, the slaughter of four George Street affiliates in January of 2013 was never even investigated. In fact, after the Kelvin Usher uproar, Fareed Ahmad was allegedly murdered by the security forces two months ago. Fast forward to last week in Orange Walk Town. A group from an elite new element of our security forces, a group so new and so elite that none of us had ever heard of them, beat a young man to death because of suspicion about a cell phone. Imagine, a cell phone. In a socio-economic climate which is so explosive, the people can only look to our elected leaders, seeking those leaders’ attention, concern, and solace. Official attention, concern, and solace, we submit, have not been forthcoming.
That is why we feel the Belizean people will come out next Wednesday to send a message. On one occasion, Mr. Barrow is reported to have referred to himself as “master of the games.” For sure, it does appear that he is laughing at the rest of us. In the specific instance of his refusal to approve a re-registration of voters, a re-registration which should have been conducted, according to the law, from ten years ago, Mr. Barrow is giving himself and his party the best possible chance for victory next Wednesday.
Belize’s voters’ lists are dirty, hence a PUP victory would be against the odds, so to speak. But, dirty lists or not, the people of Belize can send a message on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. We expect them so to do.
Power to the people.