A by-election was held in January of 1993 for the Freetown seat in Belize after the UDP incumbent, Derek Aikman, was declared a bankrupt by the courts late in 1992. In that by-election, the PUP’s Jorge Espat easily defeated the UDP’s Howell Longsworth. This result meant that the PUP held 17 seats in the House of Representatives, while the UDP, which had previously lost Stanley Usher’s Toledo West seat to PUP machinations, was reduced to 11 seats from the 13 they had won in the September 1989 general elections.
The momentum from the Freetown by-election victory helped propel the ruling PUP to a landslide victory in the March 1993 Belize City Council election, at a time when the Opposition was divided between Manuel Esquivel’s UDP and Philip Goldson’s NABR.
With the Opposition in serious disarray, the PUP decided to call general elections fifteen months before they were due. More than two decades after those June 30, 1993 generals, it is clear to us that the primary reason for the early elections was to get Ralph Fonseca into the House of Representatives, so that he could become the legal Minister of Finance. Fonseca had been doing the Finance Minister’s job for years, because the Rt. Hon. Mr. George Price elected to the Pickstock seat and appointed Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in September of 1989, was not the same Mr. Price he had been before. Ralph Fonseca, who had been badly beaten in 1984 by Dean Barrow in Queen’s Square in Ralph’s only political involvement as a candidate, had been introduced into Cabinet through a Senate appointment in 1989.
Early in their 1989 to 1993 term, the PUP decided to create a Belize Rural Central seat in order to increase the number of House seats from an even number (28) to an odd number (29), to prevent any future possibility of a tie in seats between the two major parties. This had almost happened in September of 1989. The PUP was leading by a narrow 14-13 margin on election night when the final seat went to their Guadalupe Pech in Orange Walk South, thus making the final result 15-13 in favor of the blue.
Mr. Price’s niece, Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, was being groomed for the new Rural Central seat, but Mr. Price and Mr. Said Musa asked her to step aside for Mr. Fonseca, which she did.
The PUP decided to call early general elections in 1993 because, not only did it not seem possible that they could lose, the Opposition being as divided as it was, but they felt they needed to get Ralph Fonseca into the House as quickly as possible. What then happened was that the UDP and NABR immediately forged an alliance, and that UDP/NABR coalition won a surprise victory by a 16-13 margin.
The PUP called early general elections in June 1993 because the results of the January Freetown by-election and the March CitCo elections had been completely in their favor. It is also important to recall that just a couple of months after being elected, Jorge Espat had delivered his now famous “bloated contracts” speech at a Police passing-out parade in Belmopan, and the PUP inner circle knew that this speech constituted an indirect attack on Ralph Fonseca, who was handling all Belize’s public funds but was not an elected member of the House.
In any case, it is possible to see the Freetown by-election of January 1993 as contributing to the PUP decision to call early general elections. The Jorge Espat victory immediately increased PUP electoral confidence, while raising concern over Ralph’s unelected status once their new Freetown area representative attacked him.
The Freetown by-election precedent suggests to us that it will be difficult for the PUP to defend the Cayo North seat which their Joseph Mahmud decided to vacate on Monday morning via an unprecedented letter of resignation from the House. Since the ruling UDP has two more years to handle public funds before their five-year term is completed, they will be able to offer more credible promises than the PUP to Cayo North voters in next month’s by-election campaign. This is apart from the fact that the UDP treasury presently appears to be more robust than the PUP one.
A UDP victory in the Cayo North by-election could have an impact on the March 2015 national municipal elections, even if that impact is only on campaign financiers. On the face of it, the 2014 PUP is hardly as divided as the Opposition was in early 1993, when the UDP and NABR were at each other’s throats, but Joseph Mahmud’s resignation was an angry one. He had made news last month when he announced that he would not be seeking re-election. When he resigned on Monday from the House, he had not even consulted with, or warned, the PUP leadership. The nature of Mahmud’s resignation gave credence to reports that he and the PUP Cayo South representative, Julius Espat, who had replaced Mahmud as the PUP’s Western Caucus leader, had major differences which may have become irreconcilable.
The PUP does not appear to have enough time for a candidate convention to decide between attorney Michel Chebat and businessman Richard Harrison as their Cayo North candidate for the by-election, so the choice will have to be an executive one. There are executive factions within the PUP, and they have chosen sides.
Joseph Mahmud’s resignation is a bad blow for the PUP. But, it may end up down the road as a good thing for them. In this essay we have argued that Jorge Espat’s by-election victory in Freetown helped to increase PUP confidence to the point of that arrogance which led to their calling general elections fifteen months early. It was a complete shock to the PUP when the UDP were returned to office.
No one could have foreseen that the same PUP which barely won in September 1989 could have become so sure of itself by early 1993. Similarly, it is hard to conceive that the UDP which barely won in March of 2012 could become arrogant in 2015. But, after Mahmud and the municipals, anything will be possible.