One of the reasons why corruption is almost a direct result of electoral politics is because there are no strict laws governing the business of campaigning, in the first instance. All the politician knows is that he or she absolutely has to win, by almost any means necessary, because the difference between winning and losing is so huge for a political party.
Now, our Belizean society has become so undisciplined that even where there are strict laws governing an activity, such as the matter of traffic, Belizeans have reached the point where they do whatever they have to do, or even whatever they feel like doing: they have made up their minds to figure out some way out of trouble if the particular law they are breaking at any given point happens to be enforced by some official.
Every weekday there are traffic jams in the area around the Belcan Bridge. On the southern approach to the Belcan, there is a stream of traffic coming up west from Mahogany Street and another stream flowing north from Central American Boulevard. There are traffic lights to regulate the interaction of the Boulevard traffic headed to Belcan and the Mahogany Street traffic which is trying to enter the said Boulevard in order to reach the said Belcan.
One of the problems at this spot, apart from the reckless desperation of the taxis and dollar buses, is that when the red light stops the Boulevard traffic, it takes too long for the green light to free the Mahogany Street traffic. And, vice versa. So there was this period of wasted time when both the Boulevard and Mahogany streams were parked and watching each other, frustrated. Well, some years ago, drivers decided to hell with the lights, especially at the rush hours. So, people just began doing whatever they felt like: if you are obsessive in your obedience to the law, you will be victimized at the corner of Boulevard and Mahogany. You have to become a thug. The flaw in the traffic lights has made lawbreakers of us all.
That said, let us examine our electoral politics more closely. At a certain point, money became an issue in Belizean party politics. No doubt it was an issue from the beginning, but it became more so. If you lose an election today, campaign financiers will be less eager to support you next time around, because if you lose you can’t pay them back their principal, much less with the lavish interest they were expecting.
Campaigning in Belizean elections has become heavily influenced by bribes paid to voters. Both the major parties do it. And both of them lie about it. Theoretically, it’s illegal, but so is running red lights in traffic. And everybody does it at Mahogany and Boulevard. In these circumstances, you are victimized if you obey the law.
Another factor which is at play in electoral politics is intimidation. Here is where individuals with special talents become valuable to all these politicians who act so saintly and talk so squeaky clean. Electoral politics is not a tea party. It’s rough in the streets. This is real. There are politicians who are regular church-goers: ignore that. They are all sinners. You cannot win if you are a saint.
The first real action UBAD was involved in took place in August of 1969. We had a fuss with an organization called CIVIC, which was an arm of the Opposition National Independence Party (NIP), led by Hon. Philip Goldson. From the time UBAD was founded in February of 1969 until the problem with CIVIC in August, I don’t think there was a single occasion on which the Hon. Goldson and I had met or conversed. It is possible that Mr. Goldson wrote off UBAD early on as pro-PUP or communist, because of how quickly Assad Shoman and Said Musa had become involved with us. In any case, UBAD and CIVIC had a problem which quickly became physical.
We UBAD decided to respond to a public disrespect coming from the CIVIC rostrum by appearing at their public meeting scheduled for the Harley’s Open Lot the following Thursday night. We expected that CIVIC would repeat their disrespect, and our plan was to march right up on their rostrum, which was built like a wide stage, together as an executive. I had warned the Belize Billboard editor, Mr. Frazer, that if CIVIC repeated what they had done the week before, there would be trouble.
Well, the CIVIC chairman, Allen Griffith, started to challenge us, so I led the UBAD officers up the steps to the stage. But, CIVIC had a plan. They blocked off the remainder of our executive, so it was I alone on the stage now. When they gave me the microphone, I continued with the original plan, to take over their meeting. Shubu Brown, the CIVIC strong man, then slammed me to the stage floor. Scrambling to get up, I saw a non-officer of UBAD lashing Brown with the CIVIC microphone stand.
Well, that non-officer immediately became a favorite of mine. He had appeared when I was in trouble, and he had acted decisively. You can’t teach that. You either have it or you don’t.
This was a small and isolated incident. I cite it as an example which applies to the much larger stage of electoral politics in Belize. People with special gifts become favorites of the politicians, and they have an important, though officially sub-surface, role to play. If people with special gifts get into legal problems, the relevant politician will go out of his or her way to take care of such a person. The relevant politician will use all of his or her power, and may even countenance corruption or the breaking of the law.
In one of his books, Thomas L. Friedman quotes an Arab proverb which says that sixty years of tyranny are better than one day of anarchy. Each weekday, once there is no traffic officer present, there is rush hour anarchy at the Mahogany/Boulevard traffic lights. In the House of Representatives on Friday, the Prime Minister said that some proposals from civil society were reaching the point of undermining the authority of the duly elected government. If you think about it, there is a certain point where freedom becomes license.
We can see that there are serious flaws in Belize’s parliamentary democracy. The flaw in the traffic lights at Mahogany/Boulevard has contributed to a reckless, undisciplined mindset in drivers. The serious flaws in Belize’s parliamentary democracy have contributed to a culture of corruption. But that culture of corruption is enhanced by a level of tolerance, even encouragement, on the part of us, the people.
Some societies have enacted legislation to control and monitor the nature and level of campaign financing. In Belize, campaign financing is the purview of the oligarchy, the rich elite. When handouts became a staple of election campaigning here two decades and more ago, the masses of the Belizean people at first thought we were getting something for nothing. Now it has dawned on us that the rich have fooled us yet again. At campaign time, it is their money which comes to the streets in the form of handouts. Once the government is installed and governs for five years, however, it is the rich who reap the harvest. The poor moan and groan. Skeptics preach and pontificate and cry corruption. Beloved, the system was designed this way.
Some of this system is good. We do have the right to vote, which is important and precious. But, some of the system is bad. We don’t have the right to change a government which founders functionally until five years have elapsed. Acquiring that right, the right to change a failed government, would constitute a higher form of democracy. Proportional representation would bring us such a right.
Power to the people.