SAN IGNACIO–For the first time since 1961, when voters began casting their ballots in Cayo North, by-elections were held today in that constituency and the end result was an almost unprecedented blowout, the extent of which has not been seen since Hector Silva won the division for the People’s United Party 54 years ago.
Today, it was the United Democratic Party’s Dr. Omar Figueroa who stole the show by sweeping up nearly twice the votes garnered by his rival, the PUP’s Richard Harrison.
The United Democratic Party’s chairman, Alberto August, who is also the chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, reported to Amandala tonight that their candidate, Figueroa, had received 2,665 of the 4,013 votes cast in today’s by-election, while Harrison had received only 1,348 votes. The final official statistics indicate that 5 ballots were deemed spoilt and 51 rejected.
Dr. Omar Figueroa, the UDP candidate, a jaguar researcher by profession, has not had as strong a media presence as Harrison, but he told us today that he has been working on the ground, going from house to house, listening to the people’s issues: land, health, education, infrastructure and jobs.
He told us that he is not setting his sight on a ministerial portfolio, because, in his view, Cabinet is already full, but he just wants to have the resources needed to fulfill his mandate as area rep for Cayo North.
“I am running to represent Cayo North… Cabinet is already filled up,” Figueroa said.
UDP Leader, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, told journalists tonight that he does not want to do anything to rock any boat leading to March 2015, when the municipal elections will be held, and he does not foresee making any changes to Cabinet at this time.
Dr. Figueroa wants to concentrate solely on the Cayo North constituency, and he wants to start working from now towards the 2017 general election, said Barrow, before he joined the victory parade for Figueroa.
The Cayo North by-elections were called after Joseph Mahmud, the man who had won the Cayo North seat for the Opposition People’s United Party, resigned from Parliament, forcing today’s by-election. Figueroa had been chosen as the UDP candidate in Cayo North since February and at the time, he had expected to challenge Mahmud for the seat.
However, Mahmud had indicated to his party in October that he did not wish to run again in Cayo North. The PUP said that Mahmud did give them his commitment that he would remain as area rep until the general election of 2017, but when he resigned on Monday, November 24, 2014, the PUP had to scramble to find a candidate.
The party had considered two candidates initially: Michel Chebat and Richard Harrison, but Harrison was nominated on December 15 after Chebat announced and the PUP approved, that he would step aside to allow Harrison to run in Cayo North.
Harrison said that the ruling United Democratic Party took advantage of the fact that they had a very short campaign period, and they also took advantage of the fact that they have the public’s cookie jar at their disposal.
“They have put their sticky hands in the people’s cookie jar…” to work against the people, Harrison claimed and that, he said, is what the people of Cayo North would have voted against today.
He claimed that whereas his challenger, Omar Figueroa, has a doctorate in jaguar preservation, that specialization does not answer the needs of the people. Harrison, a businessman who recently battled with business failures which he said are due to harmful government policies, said that Belize’s problems are economic and social and his plan entailed promoting the private sector in a way that would empower small businesses while the government plays a facilitating role. He said that this would result in sustainable job creation. Voters were, evidently, not sold on the plan.
After 9:00 tonight, while the votes were being counted in San Ignacio, it became evident that Figueroa was dominating the polls by a huge margin. In fact, our review of the historical records dating back to 1961, when Cayo residents first began voting in Cayo North, then a new constituency, indicate that this is the second biggest upset to any contender for Cayo North. Back then, it was Hector Silva of the People’s United Party who thrashed Manuel Figueroa of the Christian Democratic Party (CDP).
The UDP’s Salvador Fernandez made a good showing in 2008 when he garnered 62.47% of the votes, but he lost favor in the 2013 general election, when voters instead endorsed the candidacy of the PUP’s Joseph Mahmud, who beat Fernandez by almost 400 votes.
Whereas the UDP has won 6 of the 10 elections held in that division since the party emerged in 1973, it is the PUP which has won three of the prior four elections, held in 1998, 2003 and 2012. Fernandez had won the seat for three consecutive terms: 1984, 1989 and 1993. It was Ainslie Leslie who unseated Fernandez in the 1998 general election by a very slim margin, but Fernandez made a comeback when he ran against the PUP’s Otto Coleman in Cayo North in 2008. He lost to Mahmud in a well-run race in 2012.
Sabino Pinelo, vice chairman of Bullett Tree Village, was confident today that when the votes were counted, Cayo North would have a new area rep in the person of Dr. Omar Figueroa.
Pinelo told Amandala that the only reason that Mahmud, the PUP candidate, won the last general election in Cayo North was because the people were disappointed with Salvador Fernandez.
He said that although Bullet Tree voted “blue” in 2012, in the Village Council elections a month later, they chose a UDP slate, despite having a PUP area representative in the person of Joseph Mahmud.
Polls for the Cayo North by-election 2015 opened at 7:00 this morning at polling stations in San Ignacio Town and Bullet Tree Village, and they closed at 6:00 in the evening with security forces trying to restrain anxious supporters scurrying to ensure that voters made it into the line in time.
“It looks like a victory for us,” PUP chairman, Henry Usher, told us right before the close of the polls. He said that voters had had a slow start, but things had picked up later in the day.
He explained that 13 boxes, including the Bullet Tree boxes, would be taken to the ITVET building in San Ignacio for counting at the close of the polls, and that they should have had a clear indication in about an hour and a half of who the winner of today’s by-election would be.
At the close of the by-election, voter turnout was 62% — the lowest since 2003. Kareem Musa, communications director for the PUP’s Eastern Caucus, had said that although the stream of voters was slow early in the day, he had expected it to pick up in the afternoon. A PUP official at the ITVET said that they had been told that only about 700 of over 6,000 voters had turned out by 10:00 a.m. Only about a quarter of voters had shown up by noon.
However, we observed a huge mass of UDP supporters right behind the 100-yard line marked by rope at the polling station in San Ignacio. PUP supporters were out in much smaller numbers.
Musa said that the UDP had spent a lot of money to mobilize people from all over the country, but that it was not a psychological game.
“This is a Cayo North election and the people of Cayo North will decide,” Musa said.
He told us that the strength of their candidate, Harrison, is that he has a plan, he has a vision, he has ideas.
We asked him, though, how much of that plan could Harrison deliver on if his party is not in government.
Musa replied that, “This is all leading up to us being in government….”
Harrison, who said that he had spent about an hour and a half in Bullet Tree Village earlier that morning, assured us that they had a “very strong team” on the ground there and the PUP would deliver an “upset” to the UDP at that polling station.
According to Harrison, the UDP camp had been pushing money into people’s hands to vote and people were “fed up.”
“We are working, bringing out voters…” he told us, suggesting that he would achieve victory – but by a slim majority of 52%.
While Figueroa appeared more confident, he did not suggest a margin of victory. In the minutes leading up to the close of the polls, Harrison persisted in his efforts to get voters to the polls.
Despite assertions that Figueroa had been given a clear edge over Harrison because of the short campaign period and his access to resources from the ruling party, Figueroa said that he did not relax his campaign.
The PUP won three of the past four elections, and in 2012 they won by a margin of nearly 400 votes, Figueroa observed.
He said that the PUPs are just looking for an excuse to explain away their loss when they assert that the UDPs are stealing the elections with PetroCaribe money. Figueroa said that when the PUP was in power, they, too, had resources to their advantage.
According to Kareem Musa, however, the UDP has been spending “millions and millions,” as the Prime Minister likes to say, to win the elections.
Daniel Silva, Cayo Central Standard Bearer for the Opposition People’s United Party for the 2017 general election, also took issue with the heavy spending by the ruling party for the by-election.
“There is a lot of money out here today. It is a sea of red,” Silva told Amandala.
He did concede that the same concern has been levied at prior People’s United Party administrations, but said that the time has come for the kind of reform that would bring more transparency and fairness to political campaigns. He suggested that allocations for competing politicians should be handled by the Government Treasury, so that elected persons are not beholden to special interests which finance their campaign.
Figueroa, for his part, said that he just wants the resources to work in the constituency. Finding a solution to the job situation is not a one-man initiative, he said. Cayo is one of the most industrious districts, Figueroa said, adding that the potential for jobs exists with the opening of a new sugar venture, Green Tropics, as well as in tourism development.
John August, outgoing mayor of San Ignacio who plans to contest the general election for the UDP in Cayo North East in 2017, has been working hard to help his party bring home the seat, and also to help the town gear up for the March 2015 municipal elections.
He said that San Ignacio has seen a lot of infrastructure development, with the upgrade of streets, drains and parks. He said that voters are coming out to support the ruling party because they have seen that the Government has been working.
“After this, we move on to the municipal elections to secure another victory for the United Democratic Party,” August said.
Rene Mai, the PUP’s ground commander of Bullet Tree Village, said that the low voter turnout this morning in the village was due to the fact that the Ministry of Education had called off school in the area, which meant that parents had to first take care of their children before going out to vote.
Pointing to the PUP’s majority victory in the past four elections — twice by Ainslie Leslie and once by Joseph Mahmud — Mai was confident of another PUP win today. He told us that Bullet Tree would today register its support for the PUP at the polls.
It turned out, though, that the Opposition’s hopes of victory in Cayo North faded as the counting of the votes progressed into the night and it became clear that the election had been a blowout in favor of Omar Figueroa.
“I wish him all the best. I know that he will bring progress to the constituency [of Cayo North] and to Bullet Tree,” Pinelo told us tonight.
The UDP now holds 18 of 31 seats in Parliament.