Monday’s by-election in Cayo North was not as important as the national municipal elections scheduled for Wednesday, March 4. Monday, January 5, represented a big victory for the ruling United Democratic Party, and a major personal setback for the People’s United Party (PUP) Deputy Leader, Hon. Julius Espat. But Monday was a local election, confined to just one constituency, it could not affect national political power, and the Cayo North by-election did not offer the PUP the opportunity to control municipal budgets, as March 4 does.
The results of the March 2012 general election were extraordinary because of unprecedented divergences in voting patterns between Belize City/District, on the one hand, and the other five Districts, on the other. The 2012 results were also extraordinary because the Opposition PUP had experienced major leadership turmoil in October and November of 2011, yet came within fewer than 100 votes of winning a narrow general election victory three, four months later. In late 2011, elected PUP Leader Johnny Briceño unexpectedly resigned. Interim Leader Mark Espat, despite being endorsed by 30 of the 31 party constituencies, gave up leadership after less than two weeks, whereupon several people offered themselves for the leadership position, including Julius Espat and Mike Espat. Francis Fonseca, who had lost to Briceño in a March 2008 leadership convention, was then suddenly appointed Leader by PUP power brokers.
A so-called Northern Caucus had emerged in the PUP in the mid-1970s sometime after PUP Leader, Rt. Hon. George Price, had disciplined Corozal’s Santiago Ricalde, who had appeared to be a Norteño powerhouse during the middle and late 1960s. This original Northern Caucus, built around the strength of the sugar industry, featured area representatives Florencio Marin, Sr., and Valdemar Castillo of Corozal, along with Joe Briceño (father of John) and Guadalupe Pech of Orange Walk. In the 1970s, and up until 2012, there was no real Western Caucus or Southern Caucus in the PUP.
A PUP Southern Caucus, featuring area representatives Mike Espat and Oscar Requeña of Toledo, and Rodwell Ferguson and Ivan Ramos of Stann Creek, emerged after the 2012 general election. Having won all these four seats in the 1998 and 2003 general elections, the PUP had lost all these four seats in 2008. After 2012, a kind of ideological unity appeared to have been introduced amongst the aforementioned four PUP area representatives. Symptomatic of that ideological unity was the Southern Caucus’ unanimous support for the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ investment at Harvest Caye.
The case of the PUP Western Caucus is similar to that of the Southern Caucus, in that, to repeat, there were no such animals before the 2012 general election. The story of the Western Caucus after the election was the story of PUP Deputy Leader Julius Espat, who came out of his March 2012 victory as a first time candidate in Cayo South with naked and aggressive ambition. Having transferred his loyalty from Johnny Briceño to Francis Fonseca without a hitch, Julius became national campaign manager for the 2012 campaign. The holder of this post does the soliciting of funds from the big campaign financiers, and, naturally, has a lot of control over said funds. In other words, if you are a candidate and national campaign manager, you can take care of yourself. Julius won a big victory in Cayo South over the UDP incumbent.
The PUP came within 70 or 80 votes of winning the Cayo North East and Cayo Central seats, and had they done so, they would have won a 16-15 victory in 2012. As it was, the blue controlled two of the six Cayo seats, with Julius in Cayo South and Joseph Mahmud in Cayo North. But, they had come so close to winning the West, and winning the general election overall, that excitement electrified Julius Espat.
Perhaps his first setback was the dramatic return of Dan Silva to Cayo Central, but the more serious problem became a chronic one. That was a power struggle with Joseph Mahmud which became so bitter that Mahmud first announced last year that he would not defend the Cayo North seat in 2017, and then actually resigned, forcing Monday’s by-election which, in retrospect, the PUP was doomed to lose. So in Cayo, it is now 5-1 UDP, 18-13 UDP in the House of Representatives, and Dan Silva’s voice in PUP Cayo is loud. Julius Espat’s star has dimmed.
The question of leadership in the PUP is one that no one in the party wants to discuss. So, let’s not. Let’s consider the frightening fact that Lord Michael Ashcroft wants $11 per share for his Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) shares. (The UDP Government of Belize is offering Ashcroft only $3 or so per share.) Let’s note the fact that the new PUP national campaign manager is a known Ashcroft minion – the attorney Godfrey Smith. Lord Ashcroft’s billions were nowhere to be seen in the Richard Harrison campaign in Cayo North. These billions are a neoliberal joker in the PUP deck of cards, which is to say, these billions can do specific, unexpected things at times of the Master’s choosing. It is possible, for instance, that some Ashcroft money may appear in March 4 to support constituencies in the PUP which will support his $11 per share demand. This is the real issue today, Thursday, January 8, 2015. When will Lord Ashcroft’s money be introduced and where will it go? At this point, all we know is what Lord Ashcroft’s money wants, and what it wants is $11 per BTL share.