Embattled Penner defiant: only his constituents can request his resignation
Belize’s Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, held a press conference on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in Belmopan to announce a major shift by the ruling United Democratic Party from the stance it has taken since the passport scandal, in which Penner sits at the epicenter, first broke. The party, Barrow stated, had reached a unanimous decision to “request the resignation” of embattled Cayo North East representative Elvin Penner from his position as area representative, and, in effect, from the United Democratic Party.
Penner has become somewhat of an albatross around the necks of those in the UDP administration, but he has said that he has no intention of listening to PM Barrow and walking away softly into the sunset.
The Prime Minister bluntly said that an internal investigation that was carried out over the long weekend by the substantive Minister of Immigration, Hon. Godwin Hulse, and officials at the Immigration Department, has uncovered more instances of impropriety and irregularity on the part of the former Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration, Hon. Elvin Penner.
Hon. Dean Barrow emphasized that, as a result, “We [the UDP] can no longer continue to support Elvin Penner, and we hereby invite Hon. Penner to resign his seat, to resign, in fact, from the UDP.”
It is an astounding proclamation by the Prime Minister, to say the least, because as late as yesterday evening, Wednesday, and in fact, for the entire three-day weekend, UDP operatives were in Cayo North East trying to persuade electors to give Penner another chance by not signing the recall petition that was initiated by the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP).
By all indications, in the face of mass UDP mobilization in the area, the PUP was reportedly struggling to achieve the signatures of 30% of the Cayo North East electorate, equivalent to 1,800 signatures, which is the amount required to prompt the recall referendum.
The decision, which was made by the PM and his Cabinet as they met in regular session Tuesday morning, is “irreversible”, according to the Prime Minister, and further leads to what he termed an “extremely tricky situation” for the Government.
While cautioning that the UDP cannot just simply banish Penner from his seat in the House of Representatives, Barrow clarified that the Constitution is very clear – if Penner heeds the call of the UDP and resigns from the party, and from his seat in Parliament, that would trigger a sequence of events that would inevitably lead to by-elections for the vacated seat.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister promptly added that there was nothing that any of them could do to oust Penner in the event that he refused to resign from office.
In that case, the PM said, the recall mechanism would have to be used to secure Penner’s removal, which is a task that the UDP would not participate in.
Barrow said: “With respect to the recall mechanism, we’re not going to go out there and ask people to sign the recall petition. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has undertaken that assignment and we will give them ample opportunity to complete their assignment. We will, certainly, I believe, take down the banners that say ‘don’t sign the recall petition,’ and we will not have people on the streets in Cayo North East telling the voters not to sign the recall petition; let that process work and let the chips fall where they may. Penner has reached the end of the road with the United Democratic Party.”
“While we have taken a decision that’s entirely within authority in Cabinet, I don’t believe we want to preempt the larger party. I would give you my personal position and I suspect that would also be the position of my colleagues; we are not going to go out there and slaughter Penner; we are not going to do it, but to ask us to actually join some sort of a street campaign against a former colleague, we believe is asking us to go too far,” Barrow went on to state.
While jabbing at the Opposition for their lack of success so far in gathering the requisite signatures, PM Barrow said that they (the PUP) would be given enough time to move ahead with their recall efforts in case Penner declines to accept the UDP’s request for his resignation.
Hon. Barrow declared that a bye-election would be a no-win proposition for the current UDP administration because his party already holds the Cayo North East seat, and that the best they can do is to retain the seat. Barrow conceded that there is always the possibility that they could lose the seat as well, but quickly added that the sacrifice is one that his party is prepared to make if that is what it costs to do the right thing.
The PM also indicated that he had been able to reach Elvin Penner via phone just before the press conference, but Penner, who is currently in Guatemala seeking medical attention, had not indicated what his decision would have been at the time.
PM Barrow later announced that he would depart the country yesterday, Wednesday, to head to Los Angeles, firstly to visit with Belizeans who reside in that part of the United States, but to get medical attention as well for his ailing back.
The Prime Minister had indicated on Tuesday that he had hoped to accept Penner’s resignation from the party, and from his Cayo North East seat, by the time he left, but no such thing happened.
In fact, Amandala understands that Penner had sent an e-mail to the media yesterday affirming that he has no intention of stepping down unless his “people” want him to. He claimed that the support he is getting is still “overwhelming,” and “it is not going to be any other than my people that can ask me to resign… and I at this point still feel that the people in my area will not allow me to resign.”
Penner maintained, “I will continue to serve my people as long as they want me to, to the best of my ability.”
Therefore, Penner has “set up his back,” even as his party’s doors have been slammed in his face, so to speak.
The besieged area representative stated in his e-mail that he would be returning to Belize on Sunday from Guatemala, where he is obtaining treatment for headaches and high blood pressure (hypertension), which, according to his Cabinet colleague, Hon. Patrick Faber, he has been suffering from for some time.