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BPM had to call out the UDP. Now PUP out on a limb

EditorialBPM had to call out the UDP. Now PUP out on a limb

The ruling party (the PUP) has not been behind the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to get a proper redistricting done before the next general election, which is due by November 2025. On paper the EBC is an independent body. Section 88 (2) of the Constitution says that the Governor General (GG) “appoints the Chairman and the four members who shall be persons of integrity and high national standing”, that two of the members are appointed by the GG “acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given with the concurrence of the Leader of the Opposition”, and the GG appoints the Chairman and two members “acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.”

In its present structure, the EBC is not completely independent of government. If it was, the PUP would have had no need to promise in its Plan Belize manifesto of 2020-2025 that, if it became the next administration, it would “ensure fair elections by guaranteeing the independence of the Elections & Boundaries Commission.”

There are several electoral divisions that do not meet the Constitution’s requirements in Section 90 (1) (a) that “Each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be, an equal number of persons eligible to vote”. It being nigh impossible for constituencies to have the same number of registered voters, the norm is to allow a variance of 15% among constituencies.

It has been some time since a redistricting exercise was carried out. Belize Glessima Research discussed a redistricting exercise that was done in 2004/2005 when the number of electoral seats was increased from 29 to 31. That was 20 years ago, and the 15% tolerance level has been exceeded since; in some areas there are way too many registered voters, and in some way too few. The government, PUP, should support redistricting. The 2015-2020 UDP government should have, and didn’t.

With the 2015-2020 UDP government showing no interest in adjusting the borders of certain constituencies so they comply with the Constitution, the Belize Peace Movement (BPM) took the matter to court.

The BPM is an apolitical organization whose leadership is drawn from retired members of the third party, Vision Inspired by the People (VIP), which is now defunct, and the third party, Belize Progressive Party (BPP). The veteran leaders of VIP and BPP apparently got tired of being beaten up at the polls in our “first past the post” electoral system that only allows for two parties to have success (the aforementioned PUP and UDP), and dropped out of electoral politics. But their interest in seeing our democracy improve hasn’t waned any. One of the BPM leaders, Bobby Lopez, told Channel Five in an interview last year that “after the 2012 election” the OAS had brought the matter of the inequality in the electoral divisions to the government’s attention; that in 2015 their group had tried to get the matter into the courts, and failed; and that in 2020 they made a move in the courts to force the government to “have a constitutional election.

What really slowed the BPM’s challenge of the 2015-2020 government’s foot-dragging was the existential question revolving around Guatemala and the ICJ. The BPM’s leaders had been consumed with the fight to get Belize to vote NO to the ICJ, and when the referendum on the matter was held, in May 2019, we were barely a year away from a general election. The BPM’s efforts were further delayed when the world was hit by the pandemic in early 2020. When the BPM eventually took the redistricting matter to court, it was agreed by all parties – BPM, the UDP government, and PUP—that a redistricting exercise would be too close to the election. Thus, the decision was made to postpone the redistricting until after the November 2020 general election, at which time whichever party controlled the government would get on with the job posthaste. The PUP won the 2020 election; they haven’t moved to get the job done.

Nationally, the buck stops with the EBC; it is their responsibility to ensure that votes in Belize are equally distributed. They have not been up to the task. It’s possible that the statisticians at the EBC are in a stunned state because of the rapid increase of registered voters in some electoral divisions, just as scientists in the Meteorology Department are dazed while watching some of these hurricanes blow up from a Category One to a Category Five overnight.

As recently as 1993, Fort George (2,832) had more registered voters than Stann Creek West (2,716). In 2008, just 15 years later, the number of registered voters in Stann Creek West (7,085) was more than double the number of registered voters in Fort George (3,195). By 2020, the number of registered voters in Stann Creek West (9,864) was more than five times the number of registered voters in Fort George (1,876).

Another area that literally exploded before the eyes of the EBC is in the Cayo District. In 1998, the Cayo South division included Belmopan, and there were 5,186 voters in that area; in 2003, the total number of registered voters in Cayo South had increased to 8,344; in 2008, Belmopan became a separate electoral district in more or less the same space, with Cayo South having 5,871 voters and Belmopan having 6,060. In the 2020 general election, Cayo South had 7,069 voters and Belmopan had 8,758 voters, a three-time increase of the combined areas over 1998.

There are other explanations for the lethargy in the EBC. Some previous redistricting might not have been done with sufficient foresight, and the present EBC is probably reluctant to reverse some of these decisions for fear that the competence of their predecessors will be questioned. And, some redistricting that legitimately has to be done will lead to cries of foul, and the present EBC might not have the stomach for the vitriol that will be directed their way.

Redistricting/redivisioning is highly political in all democracies. For incumbents, gerrymandering to get an advantage at the polls is always a temptation. It’s notable that in the beginning not everyone had the right to vote in democracies. In Belize the most important credential was that you had substantial property. In the US you had to have the right skin color. And in neither did women have the franchise.

Mid-2023, the EBC eventually presented a redistricting proposal, which the BPM denounced. The PUP didn’t approve of it either. A Belize Press Office report on July 11, 2023 said Cabinet “expressed serious concerns about the recommendations” made by the EBC, and that “The Report will now be tabled in the National Assembly for debate.”

What the EBC proposed wasn’t tabled until May 30, 2024, almost a year later. Almost everyone expected, or hoped, the government would ram the rejected proposal through the House in one sitting, so the EBC could move on to delivering something more acceptable. Instead, GoB chose to just read it and let it lie.

XTV News said the PM, speaking on the prospects of getting the job done before the next election, said “if we were to quickly move, probably maybe we could still do it, but we have to wait and see.” XTV News said the BPM’s Bobby Lopez expressed alarm and disappointment with GoB’s further foot dragging. XTV News said Lopez said that if the redistricting isn’t done, “it would be the fourth time that compliance with the Constitution would be denied”, and he demanded that GoB “stop the hemorrhaging of Belizean constitutional rights.”

Love News said Lopez told them that the BPM is “preparing to file for an injunction against the next general election if the redistricting exercise is not completed by then.” The BPM didn’t stop there. Throughout the process, their focus has been entirely on the ruling party. With the GoB seemingly committed to stalling, and a new election fast approaching, the BPM, whose leaders while in electoral politics had played it straight, turned wily politicians and lashed out at the UDP, condemned them as a partner in the crime.

The response from the UDP was immediate. Love News said the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Shyne Barrow, “countered Lopez’ statements and said that they are in support of redistricting and they have been vocal on their stance.” The UDP leader said his party wants “the government at the next sitting of the House to take the bill through all its stages”, that the experts be allowed “to do their jobs and let them present a map that is in keeping with the Constitution of the country”, and that the party would “push along with the BPM and all other likeminded Belizeans to have redistricting done before the next general elections.”

The UDP had not been vocal in its stance. All the UDP had done publicly prior to this endorsement was question the integrity of the EBC. Lopez told Love News that the UDP needed to back up their words with action.

The PUP, which was content with the status quo, quite likely had expected the UDP to remain coy because 3 of the 4 divisions with the least registered voters are controlled by the Opposition, thus redistricting would hurt them more. The PUP might even have considered itself as being generous to the UDP. Because the BPM put the UDP on the spot, the UDP, which was also content with the status quo, broke ranks. The UDP leader told Love News that some proposed mergers made sense, and cited a notable example: Queen’s Square and Mesopotamia (his division), a merging of which, he said, “makes sense.” Merging the Mesopotamia and Queen’s Square divisions wouldn’t hurt the UDP leader personally. But the party would lose a seat.

Simply put, with the UDP’s endorsement of the BPM’s push for redistricting, they have the PUP on a limb.

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