Democracy won yesterday, Wednesday, in Belize, again. It was not the general elections. This one was “just” municipal elections, decision-making time for folk in the cities (two) and towns (seven) to elect the men and women who would get the jobs of keeping the streets in a good state, the drains flowing, the garbage collected, and so and so forth. But the undercurrents in this one were so thick with implications, even in the villages, that Belizeans stayed up way into the night to hear how the numbers played out in Belize’s urban world.
At the beginning of the day, the government of Dean Barrow sat on a 62-5 seat advantage, and his party held 8 of the 9 municipalities, including the largest, Belize City. His party has won 3 consecutive times in general elections. While the UDP has been winning, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been floundering. They, the PUP, have been victims of an internal struggle over the direction of that party.
The PUP crashed from grace after they ran the economy into the ground during their 1998-2008 reign. The PUP had embarked on an ambitious economic plan, called growth economics. The UDP 1993-1998 had pinched the economy into submission. The PUP 1998-2008 were big spenders on big projects. There was expansion in education facilities, health facilities, health insurance, and housing,
While many considered most of their projects noble, the party’s dependence on high-interest loans from abroad, and sale of prized essential utilities mostly to private foreign interests, was worrisome. What probably sank their government was greed and corruption at the top. And speculation. And the use of public money to back private projects when the private investors ran into trouble.
The PUP split apart when a faction of that party insisted that they turn away from the full-scale capitalist growth economics and return to their social justice roots. The healing has been long in coming. While the PUP has been fighting, the UDP has been winning, big.
We have heard Lord Acton’s assertion, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so often that he is now a household name and his saying is now a cliché. The Barrow government has had near absolute control of governance institutions in this country for nigh a decade.
The UDP had come to power (since 2008) on a promise that they would expunge “even a whiff of corruption” if/when it reared its ugly head in their government. The UDP, if it was sincere about controlling corruption, tried to carry out that objective without availing themselves of the tools that are in place to keep a close eye on the government’s finances. The furniture in the offices of the Public Accounts Committee and the Integrity Commission are covered with more dust and cobwebs than the set of a ghost movie. Belize has been without a Contractor General for some months.
The charges of corruption have been piling up on the government for some time now. On top of that, this nation, our tranquil haven, has been reeling from violence in the streets that has escalated over the last decade to civil war proportions. On top of that, the jobs outlook for the working population is not encouraging, this despite a massive injection of cheap capital from Venezuela, as well as the largesse of nearly a decade of the BNE oil bonanza.
But the UDP had invested our finances strategically. The cities and towns have been the beneficiaries of cement and steel projects that transformed the landscape like never before. And this election was just for the citizens who lived in said areas. It would have, could have been a stroll in the park for the ruling UDP, if the municipal elections were only about streets and drains. And if the PUP hadn’t pulled together, though not seamlessly, and made this election a referendum on the UDP’s stewardship of the nation.
On one hand, making the elections national was a big gamble for the new PUP leadership. A UDP victory at the polls on Wednesday would have taken down two birds with one stone. It would have been a blessing for their massive expenditure in projects made out of imported cement and steel, and they would have driven back the charges that they were crushingly corrupt, and blind to the violence in our country. A UDP victory would also have sent the People’s United Party into disarray, again.
On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t such a big gamble for the PUP’s new leadership, because when you sit on only 5 seats out of 67, you don’t have anything to lose.
On Wednesday, Belize held its breath while waiting to see which party the tides in March would bring in. It was the PUP. Officially, they increased their number of seats to 26 (they won a seat in Dangriga). At this writing, the results in San Pedro are under review.
The PUP victory at the polls was impressive. In the north of the country the PUP Leader’s (John Briceño) electoral machinery behind mayoral candidates Kevin Bernard and Rigo Vellos, and their councilor aspirants, rolled over the territory.
And in Belize City, the Cordel Hyde (PUP Deputy Leader)- led machine on the south side that featured first time mayoral candidate Bernard Wagner, and a stellar slate of councilor candidates, gave the PUP visions of their good old days when they had seats on the south side of Belize City that were impregnable. On the north side of the city, Said Musa and his son, Kareem, and Francis Fonseca, delivered hugely for their party, again.
It wasn’t a terrible day for the UDP, but it was worrying, very. They held on to six constituencies. On the surface that is a victory. It was far from that, however. All the numbers are not yet in, but it appears that they have lost ground in most constituencies. In Corozal Town they were defeated, and in Orange Walk Town they got walloped. In Belize City, the biggest prize, they were humbled.
Over the days ahead, Belizeans will be studying the numbers to see who did what, and where. Many will be doing so just for the fun, while the political actors will be grinding the numbers to see where they are weak, and have to strengthen, and where their strongholds are. The performances of the third parties and the independents will be closely scrutinized too.
It is to be seen how the UDP will respond to the awakening at the polls on Wednesday. They can point to what they didn’t lose, but the evidence on the ground is that considerable real estate went over to the other side. They could sulk and become mean, or more mean. We have seen the UDP behave like that before. That would be bad for Belize, and for them. They could try a makeover. Surely, it is within them to perform the duties they were entrusted with, without fear or favor. They could try and find that anti-corruption machete and cut out the rot that has eaten into their core.
The victory, as we pointed out earlier, is for the country. Democracy is alive in our first-past-the-post system when there are two viable parties (at least) reaching out to voters. Wednesday’s results said there are.