On the morning of Wednesday, July 8, in Dangriga, the People’s United Party showed life and the United Democratic Party appeared a little off their game, a little taken aback at the PUP, who had appeared to be flat-lining in January in the Cayo bye-election and again in the municipal elections in March. But that was the morning. By day’s end, the script had returned to the one we have grown to know well: The PUP seemed lifeless and leaderless and the UDP swarmed to a 637-vote victory – that’s despite the PUP having an excellent candidate in former educator/administrator Anthony Sabal.
There is enough blame to assign to PUP leader Francis Fonseca and his support team. They mishandled the Ivan Ramos departure badly. They considered not contesting the bye-election for a full week. They scarcely spent any resources in the remaining three weeks of the campaign, at least not anything near what they have been spending on TV ads and mobilization in the last 7 days.
And our reports say it wasn’t until the last few days of Sabal’s campaign that Queen Street sent in a coordinating team to help organize the first-time candidate.
The Dangriga bye-election marked the third election defeat in six months for the PUP. And what has followed is that a swell of PUP standard-bearers have begun to realize they are heading for a general election defeat unless something is done to shake things up inside.
But shaking up things inside a mass party is not as clear-cut as one would think. The leader is usually super strong inside, even if he appears very weak outside. Standard-bearers, you see, tend not to rock the boat because they fear being ostracized and left out of a Cabinet portfolio if the party wins the general elections.
And in this case, we are told, the leader’s inner circle attacks aggressively at the slightest hint of dissent or criticism.
The group of dissenting standard-bearers that reached a high of 13 before settling down to 11, with the departure of Lloyd Jones and Dorla Vaughn, said that inside Independence Hall had become too toxic, so they resorted to writing a letter to party chairman Henry Usher, and copied that letter to party leader Francis Fonseca, calling for a national convention to be held at the earliest.
They cited that the party has been operating in extreme violation of its constitution, since a national convention had not been held in almost 5 years, even though the constitution is clear that one should be held every two years and even though every PUP leader since the late George Price had always ensured they complied with the national convention rule.
But this is where it gets intriguing, because the PUP leader and his advisors have concluded that he absolutely cannot subject himself to a contested national convention — because there is a good chance he would lose in such a contest. Fonseca himself is still scarred from his 2008 national convention defeat, so while they have announced that there will be a national convention at some point soon, they are insisting that it must be an uncontested one.
It is an amazing development inside a supposed democratic party in a professed democratic country. The leader is saying might is right: he has the majority of standard-bearers on his side, so that means there will be no contested national convention, even as the party adopts the popular “Power to the people” as its mantra. How can such a glaring contradiction escape those who sit around the Independence Hall table? A little history requires repeating here.
In 2008, following the 25-6 shellacking of the PUP by the UDP, a majority of the then 31 PUP standard-bearers opted to support former Attorney General Francis Fonseca as the party’s next leader when Said Musa stepped down. Musa and Budget Management Minister Ralph Fonseca had handpicked Ralph’s first cousin Francis, while a minority of the standard-bearers backed former Deputy Prime Minister John Briceño. But while the standard-bearers had Fonseca’s back, their delegates didn’t. And the result was a surprise victory for Briceño among the 600 or so delegates.
Two years later, the party undertook some reforms, and one of them was a deepening of the democracy inside the body they call the “supreme authority” of the party – the national convention. The numbers of delegates that can vote were quadrupled, and so if there was a contested national convention held today, at least 2,400 persons would be allowed to vote. That’s a huge advance for democracy inside the 65-year-old party, but it remains only an idea, because leadership knows that standard-bearers cannot control so many delegates.
So fast-forward to today, and 19 of the 30 standard-bearers agree with their leader that might is right and that despite the clear message sent by the electorate in three straight elections in 2015, they prefer to stick with the status quo.
The other standard-bearers, 11 of them, say they cannot subscribe to such a doctrine. They argue that the party has to be responsive to the electorate if they are to stand a chance in the coming elections. They want a national convention where there are no sacred cows.
The supporters of Francis Fonseca, however, argue that he took up leadership when no one else wanted it after Briceño’s sudden resignation late in 2011, and he came within 60 votes of taking the party to victory in the 2012 general elections four months later. Plus, they argue that it’s too late to change leader since the general elections may be imminent.
The result is a protracted face-off inside the grand old party — one that is making their rank and file very uneasy. At the first leg of the party’s countrywide tour, in San Ignacio on Sunday, only Cayo Central’s Dan Silva and Belize Rural South’s Elito Arceo of the group of 11 showed up at the event. Silva had already indicated he would attend, citing that the Cayo event and his principled position are two separate things. Arceo, we understand, showed up to lend support to Silva.
There will be tremendous pressure on the group of 11 from the rank and file to comply and cooperate. The supporters are in no mood for anything that appears to be disunity, even as they concede that the status quo is not bringing home the bacon.
But standard-bearers insist that everywhere they go, people are telling them that something has to be done about leadership, or else…
It’s a case of brinksmanship, and high stakes politics at its best. Who will blink first? Leadership cannot continue to have so many of their standard-bearers stay away. John Briceño, Cordel Hyde and Dan Silva are some of the party’s most successful politicians, having won a combined 10 general elections – more than Fonseca’s five deputies combined. The days ahead will be interesting. It is written.
Power to the people. Remember Danny. Fight for Belize.