Editorial — 27 January 2015
New PUP storm clouds

News began circulating a few days ago in the higher echelons of Belize’s political world that the Orange Walk East area representative, Dr. Marcotulio Mendez, who announced a few months ago that he would not be seeking re-election because of medical problems, has more serious problems of a personal nature which may force him to give up his seat. Dr. Mendez was elected to the House of Representatives as a candidate for the People’s United Party (PUP) in the March 2012 general election.

In that 2012 general election, the PUP won 14 seats and came within fewer than 75 votes of winning a majority 16 seats (of the 31 overall). Their Cayo North area representative, Joseph Mahmoud, however, after first announcing that he would not seek re-election, suddenly gave up his seat late last year. Mahmoud’s resignation resulted in a by-election on January 5 this year which saw the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) win the seat when their Dr. Omar Figueroa defeated the PUP’s Richard Harrison. So the UDP now control 18 seats in the House, and the PUP 13.

If there had to be a by-election in Orange Walk East and the UDP won it, that would give the ruling party 19 seats to the PUP’s 12. An Orange Walk East by-election would not be the cakewalk for the UDP that Cayo North was, but any new by-election which endangers a seat won by the PUP in 2012, adds to the momentum the UDP are enjoying and increases the unrest at Independence Hall.

As a matter of fact, the PUP just the weekend before last held a convention to choose their 2017 standard bearer for the aforementioned Orange Walk East constituency. Josue Carballo narrowly defeated Dave Burgos. There was talk that Carballo was a Johnny Briceño candidate, while Burgos was considered a Francis Fonseca man.

In the House meeting last week Monday in Belmopan, UDP Prime Minister Dean Barrow was at pains to publicize and promote the threat that political observers believe Briceño poses to Fonseca. Mr. Barrow made it his business to refer to Briceño as the PUP’s “once and future king” on more than one occasion. He did this because the PUP have done a good job of keeping a lid on the Fonseca-Briceño rivalry. Mr. Barrow has to bring this matter to the public’s attention in order to increase PUP discomfiture.

The developments in the Collet constituency over the course of the last year gave the truth away, to a certain extent. The scuttlebutt was that the SMART telecommunications executive, Anthony Mahler, would have been a hot PUP candidate to replace the twice-defeated Collet chairlady, Carolyn Trench-Sandiford. But SMART is partly owned by Johnny Briceño, and Mahler is naturally assumed to be a Briceño loyalist. In the PUP leadership numbers game, Mahler had to be kept out of Collet at all cost, so a callow youth, Micah Goodin, was suddenly brought in from nowhere as a Collet standard bearer aspirant. The Goodin candidacy, predictably, never got off the ground. This is why Yasmine Shoman had to enter the picture. In any contested leadership convention, Francis has to have Collet.

The PUP constitution calls for national conventions every two years, which means that one is way overdue. The last PUP national convention that we know of was held in late 2010 in Dangriga. At the time, Briceño was confirmed as PUP Leader, a post he had won by defeating Francis Fonseca in a March 2008 leadership convention. Briceño, who is believed to be owed several million dollars by the PUP, resigned from PUP leadership in October 2011. Mark Espat then became PUP Interim Leader for 11 days or so, was endorsed by 30 of the 31 PUP constituencies (remember Arthur?), but then decided to turn down the position. Julius Espat, Mike Espat, and Arthur Saldivar then applied to become PUP Leader, but Francis Fonseca was appointed PUP Leader by forces unknown.

The PUP’s surprisingly strong performance with Francis as Leader in the March 2012 general election consolidated the appointment, but since then, weak PUP village council performances and the Fonseca PUP’s inability to exploit major UDP scandals have caused dissatisfaction. Briceño has not been on any kind of public campaign for leadership. But, the Cayo North UDP by-election made things worse for the PUP status quo. Dr. Mendez’s Orange Walk East storm clouds are not good news.

So then, the national municipal elections scheduled for five weeks time bring pressure on the Francis Fonseca leadership for the PUP to do well. Presently, the PUP control three of the nine municipal governments – Punta Gorda, Dangriga, and Orange Walk Town. The PUP will win Orange Walk Town, but that is Johnny Briceño’s domain. The PUP are under fire in Dangriga, and are fighting to hold serve in Punta Gorda. In both elections in the South, the reality of greater UDP campaign resources is an issue.

Francis Fonseca announced last week that the PUP have secured financing for the national municipals. That is certainly good news for his supporters. In the larger PUP, though, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. No one has yet been able to prove that the PUP’s stellar performance in the Districts in March of 2012 didn’t have something to do with the Briceño March 2008 to October 2011 leadership of the party. March 4 is an opportunity for Mr. Fonseca to claim his own scalps and hang them in his tepee. If he does not do so, then the big man in London may feel that he has a better chance in 2017 with somebody else.

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