Cover your heads and mock
not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
– RICHARD II, Act III, sc. ii, l. 171-177
We keep saying to you, Belize has a pretty good democracy. Belize has been able to change governments from time to time in free and fair elections. There is no violence in our electoral campaigning. Because the constitutional possibility of political change exists, Belize, unlike the countries in Central America around us, has succeeded in avoiding revolutionary violence.
The major flaw in Belize’s parliamentary democracy is the nature of our campaign financing, which is wide open for anyone who can write a big check to acquire influence in the two major political parties, and at the same time secretive in that the political parties are not mandated to reveal the identities of their campaign financiers or the amounts they donate. The nature of Belize’s campaign financing makes a mockery of the universal adult suffrage we welcomed with such pride in 1954. The concept of “one man, one vote,” becomes a kind of joke when one man can write a check for one million dollars to one of the two major parties, as was famously revealed in the general election campaign of 1998. Such a check writer, in a real sense, has more than one vote.
Another serious flaw in Belize’s parliamentary democracy is the iron-clad nature of the five-year term. The rule of the Prime Minister and his party are monarchical: only the Prime Minister can decide to call a general election before his party’s five-year term is concluded. No matter how scandalous the behavior of the party elected to power during its term of office, the people of Belize have to tolerate it until the Prime Minister feels like going back to the electorate. In practice, Prime Ministers in Belize, to a man, never go back to the people when they and their party are under pressure: the apparatus of power is structured in such a way that, if a Prime Minister is stubborn, he can say to hell with the people. We have seen that Belize’s Prime Ministers have been, to a man, stubborn.
Over the years we have explained to you that the keys to this excessive Prime Ministerial power are the first-past-the-post electoral system and the common practice of our Prime Ministers of appointing Cabinets which constitute a majority of the members of the House of Representatives. This Cabinet member majority means there is no backbencher action possible in the House, thus the executive (Cabinet) renders the legislature (the House) a “mere scutcheon.” Without backbencher action, the House is bastardized.
It has been sad to watch the Prime Minister of Belize, in the effort to protect his and his party’s power, speak and behave in a manner which is not above board, to put it mildly. We saw it in the Elvin Penner matter in 2013. Over a period of months, it became obvious to most of the adult citizens of Belize that the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) considered it a greater priority to remain in office than to investigate the Elvin Penner/Citizen Kim matter, establish the truth, prosecute the perpetrators, and let the chips fall where they might.
The Elvin Penner matter was almost sordid. This month’s William Danny Mason matter is worse, because the Mason matter involves murder, murder by decapitation. The adult citizens of Belize, having lived through the Elvin Penner matter, during the extraordinary course of which the Chief Justice of Belize gave explicit instructions to the Commissioner of Police, and was publicly ignored by said Commissioner, became suspicious early in the William Danny Mason matter. The behavior and statements of the Police Department have been strange, from the beginning of this saga. This is because William Danny Mason was a favored person for several Cabinet Ministers, and the chances are he knew things which these Cabinet Ministers would not like for him to discuss in public. William Danny Mason, therefore, must be coddled by the judiciary so that he does not feel the urge to say what he knows about the executive.
It is a pity, you know, that Shakespeare is no longer read and studied in our school system. What one learns from Shakespeare, among other things, is the specific nature of the human dramas involving kings and queens – monarchs. When Belizeans first welcomed our present Ministerial constitution in 1961, no one here understood that constitution to be monarchical. But, in 1961, Belize was still British Honduras. Belizeans were still “British subjects.” When Belize achieved political independence in 1981, the changes made to our political constitution were minimal. About two decades after political independence, our scholars finally examined and understood our system to be what it is – monarchical, and pronounced it to be such.
The Prime Minister of Belize is the equivalent of a king. He rules with immense powers, but these immense powers carry enormous responsibilities. And, as Shakespeare so intriguingly discussed in Richard II, kings are human beings. The Prime Minister suddenly took a week off, flying to the United States this past weekend. His government has been besmirched, again, in the first instance because holders of high office in his Cabinet were too fond of good food, expensive liquor, and financial gifts. They cheapened their high Belizean offices, and they found themselves having to flee from a relationship they had relished and enjoyed.
The Prime Minister of Belize is a personality who is always concerned about his personal probity and dignity. High ranking members of his government have brought the Government of Belize’s probity into question, and they have exposed the PM’s obsession with his political power. To be truthful, it is not as if the members and followers of the UDP would have it any other way. Power is more important to the UDP than integrity of office. It is what it is.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie.