Sometime last Friday the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) decided on businessman Richard Harrison as the party’s candidate for the Cayo North by-election scheduled for January 5, 2015, and introduced him to the press.
The PUP, caught off guard by Joseph Mahmud’s sudden resignation from the seat last Monday, November 24, had been looking at a candidate convention to decide between Harrison and attorney Michel Chebat after Mahmud’s October decision not to run for re-election in the next general elections, scheduled for 2017. Mahmud’s unexpected resignation, followed by the Governor-General’s writ for the by-election to be held on January 5, with nominations for December 15, did not give the PUP enough time for a candidate convention. The decision between Chebat and Harrison had to be an executive one.
There were two party organizations which had an early say. These were the PUP’s Western Caucus, which includes Cayo South’s Julius Espat as chairman, Orlando Habet of Cayo Northeast, Dr. Lesbia Guerra of Cayo West, Patrick Jason Andrews of Belmopan, and Dan Silva of Cayo Central. Then there was the Cayo North constituency committee. Their recommendations were to go to the national executive of the party for a final ratification. It appears that the Western Caucus leaned towards Chebat, but the constituency committee’s choice was Harrison.
In an editorial discussing politics and money last week, this newspaper had pointed out that, as money became more and more important in Belize’s political campaigning, internal democracy in the major political parties had become the sacrifice. Party leaderships influenced or rigged conventions in order to ensure the victory of whichever candidate was more attractive for the campaign financiers.
In the cases of Chebat and Harrison, they are pretty similar philosophically. Neither of them represents any populist threat, or would be a candidate looked upon with suspicion by the party’s financiers. On the ground in Cayo North, however, Richard Harrison was better known than Michel Chebat, and thus the Cayo North’s constituency committee went that way.
Mr. Harrison almost immediately began his campaign by challenging the United Democratic Party’s (UDP) Cayo North candidate, Dr. Amir Figueroa, to a public debate. This was a good move on Harrison’s part. In order to have a chance, given the UDP’s apparent financial advantage, he needs to stir up things. In previous by-elections for seats in the House of Representatives, the party which held the seat lost the seat in the by-election. The PUP’s Jorge Espat in 1993 won the Freetown seat which had been vacated by the UDP’s Derek Aikman, and in 2003 the UDP’s John Saldivar won the Belmopan seat which became vacant following the death of the PUP incumbent, Agripino Cawich.
The difference between the 1993 and 2003 by-elections is that in 1993, the ruling PUP won a seat previously held by the Opposition UDP, whereas in 2003 the Opposition UDP captured a seat which had been held by the ruling PUP.
Next month’s by-election provides the ruling UDP with an opportunity to expand its narrow 17-14 seat margin in the House. Indeed, with Elvin Penner practically disqualified from House activity, the margin may be considered 16-14, before Mahmud’s resignation, that is. The Cayo North by-election also provides the UDP with an opportunity to create electoral momentum two months before national municipal elections.
The PUP had been loudly calling for general elections, but Cayo North is not a general election. The Cayo North by-election cannot oust the UDP administration. All the PUP can do on January 5 is hold serve if they retain the seat previously held by Mahmud.
Lost in the uproar created by the Joseph Mahmud resignation in Cayo North was the endorsement convention installation two days before of Yasmin Shoman as the PUP Collet candidate. Shoman had suddenly appeared on the Collet horizon after a Micah Goodin trial balloon had burst. The previous PUP Collet standard bearer was Carolyn Trench-Sandiford, who is still one of five PUP Deputy Leaders. Trench-Sandiford had been defeated by the UDP’s Patrick Faber in both the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
Sometime after the 1998 general elections, a talking had begun in the PUP that standard bearers who lost more than two general election runs should be replaced as candidates. This “talking” did not affect Remijio Montejo, who had lost in Collet in both 1984 and 1993, though victorious in 1989. Montejo won as the PUP’s Collet candidate in 1998, but lost again, to Faber, in 2003.
Carolyn Trench-Sandiford had been the beneficiary of a Collet endorsement convention in 2006 at a time when she was also running as a Belize City Council candidate for the PUP. Carolyn had not, either formally or informally, given up her Collet standard bearer position when the young Micah Goodin appeared in Collet a year or so ago. Collet’s traditional PUP powerhouse, “Miss Birdie,” who has been out of the country, did not take to Micah. Enter Yasmin. Carolyn has been silent throughout all this. She remains a Deputy Leader who has never won an election.
The UDP have been saying that Julius Espat and Orange Walk Central’s Johnny Briceño, who was PUP Leader from March 2008 to October 2011, are active pretenders to Francis Fonseca’s PUP throne. The former PUP Leader and Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Said Musa, has always been a Francis Fonseca loyalist. His power in the party is great. In the Belize City PUP, for instance, apart from his personal Fort George seat, he now controls the Caribbean Shores, Queen’s Square, and Collet constituencies. Francis Fonseca was anointed by the PUP icon himself, the late Rt. Hon. George Cadle Price, in March of 2008, but in politics it is a question of bringing home the bacon. The next three months will be critical for Mr. Fonseca. The big boys in the PUP want to return to Belmopan. This is, as they say, the bottom line.