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2012 PUP manifesto made the right call for fixed election date

Editorial2012 PUP manifesto made the right call for fixed election date

It was expected, after the PUP blew out the UDP in the March 6 Municipal elections, winning 8 of the 9 municipalities, most of them by massive margins, that journalists would ask the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, if an early general election was in the offing. The PM’s response to the question was an emphatic “no”. The nation should be grateful. Concerning ourselves solely with the interests of the people, early general elections have been good for fast forwarding excitement, and nothing else.

The early general election, a feature of the Westminster System, allows a popular government to call an election when it is most advantageous to them, and for the people to call on honorable representatives in the ruling party to pressure an unpopular or disgraced government to the polls before its mandate has run out. There have been four early general elections in Belize, and all were called because the ruling party felt it was to their advantage.

The 1969 general election came four months early. There had been some turmoil in the leadership of the main opposition, NIP, and PUP leader/ Premier George Price, always the savvy politician, pounced and called the election a little early. Price and the PUP sailed to a 17-1 victory in 1969.

In 1993, the PUP called a general election 14 months early, and we got a government that was wholly unprepared to lead when the main opposition, UDP won in an upset. The PUP was emboldened to call that election after they swept the municipal election in Belize City in March 1993. When the PUP surprised everyone and called the general election, the UDP hastily made a promise it couldn’t/wouldn’t keep with a main wing of the party that had broken off, and hastily put together a manifesto that promised free education and free land.

The PUP misgauged the mood of the people. They weren’t aware of widespread grumbling over their borrowing money at high interest rates from commercial banks for large infrastructure projects, and for bloating contracts. Many observers say that the straw that brought the PUP camel to its knees was the sudden announcement by the British government that they would be pulling their troops. Maybe the PUP lost because God noh like ugly. Just before that election, the PUP hastily signed away the golden share in our telephone company, BTL. The UDP victory was a squeaker, and the response of the shocked PUP would later lead to a retrograde change in our laws.

The general election in 2012 was called 11 months early. The government, UDP, claimed it needed a new mandate to deal with the foreign debt which had been packaged into a single instrument which they had dubbed “The Super Bond”; but the more likely reason for that early election is that the party saw the main opposition, PUP experiencing serious dissension in leadership. The UDP won that election, barely.

The election in 2015 was called 16 months early. On his return from a meeting in Miami with the principal of BTL, the UDP leader/Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced that his government had scored a massive victory, the reacquisition of the company at a very generous price, and almost immediately thereafter he dissolved his government. But the deal was only good on the surface. Before the people could read the fine print, the general election was over and the UDP had won a third consecutive term.

There was no profit for the people in these snap elections. They were all for the party. On three separate occasions in the last 20 years the people have expressed serious dissatisfaction with the ruling party. The 1993-1998 UDP government overstayed its time, and so did the 2003-2008 PUP government, and the 2015-2020 UDP government. The records are in the archives, of the massive demonstrations in the streets of Belize City.

In its 2012 party manifesto, the PUP made the progressive call for the general election date to be fixed, and for the 5-year term to be reduced to 4. Interestingly, the Political Reform Commission set up by the PUP 1998-2003 government, concluded that fixed dates for national elections wasn’t compatible with “the parliamentary executive model of government as practiced by Belize.” That flimsy argument by that commission might have been influenced by a number of members who had vocalized their interest that we should do away with the Westminster System.

That same commission recommended “that the Government of Belize, after public consultation, develops and enacts anti-defection legislation for members of the House of Representatives.” Prior to the 1998 general election, the PUP had proposed that “Crossing the floor by members of the Assembly be made unconstitutional, [that] members wishing to change parties should be made to resign and face a bye-election.” The PUP’s 1998-2003 government introduced and passed legislation that effectively prevented members from crossing the floor.

After the shock defeat in 1993, the PUP had been accused of trying to bribe two members of the UDP to cross the floor, which would have overturned the UDP 15-13 majority, thereby returning the reins of government to the PUP. If the accused were guilty, theirs was a dastardly and dishonorable act, and the PUP might have been about atonement when it passed the anti-defection law. Whatever the motive was, it set back our democracy.

What we have presently is government that enjoys the feature of calling the election early, but almost cannot be forced to do so by peaceful means. As it stands in Belize, if a government is forced to call the general election early, a conscientious vote in the House of Representatives most likely won’t be the reason.

In July 2021, the social partner senators, led by Senator Osmany Salas, the NGO representative, condemned what it described as the government’s “piecemeal approach” to reforms, and called for a broad-based Constitutional Assembly to revisit the laws of Belize. In November 2022, the government launched the People’s Constitution Commission, and gave it 18 months to review the Constitution, after which period it is to present its findings to the Prime Minister.

It is not yet clear how these findings will be presented to the people, so they can vote on them in a referendum. What is pretty certain is that there will be a lengthy and maybe contentious process between the Commission’s findings hitting the PM’s desk, and the referendum. In the interim we are stuck with this unjust right of governments to call a general election when they feel they are likely to win.

We don’t need to wait for a referendum on the Constitution. It must be in all party manifestos for the 2025 general election that thenceforward the general election date will be fixed. And the 4-year term might be a plus for any party that includes it in its manifesto. Governments in the UK have a 5-year mandate, but in the last 17 years they have had 5 prime ministers. Looking at two of our neighbors to the north, in the US the mandate is 4 years, and a president cannot serve more than two terms; and in Mexico the mandate is 6 years, and the president can serve only one term.

In 2015 we had an early general election because a Prime Minister desperately wanted a third term. Government is for the people, not for the party. Fix the election date.

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