The Guatemalans, in a show of diplomatic superiority, have insisted that Belize change its referendum law by removing the 60% voter turnout threshold. The Guatemalans argue that the Barrow administration, in a slight of hand, amended the Referendum Act after both countries had agreed to go to the ICJ. It is therefore the view of the Guatemalans that the threshold is designed to lead to a failed referendum in Belize.
Dr. Assad Shoman as part of his 3-step plan on the way forward, yields to the Guatemalan demand, and supports a change to the Referendum Act that would allow legitimacy of a referendum by a simple majority, irrespective of voter turnout. I disagree with this primarily on two grounds; (1) the Guatemalans must not be allowed to exercise sovereignty over our domestic statutes and (2), legitimacy by a simple majority does not adequately reflect the important nature of the issue at hand.
The imposition of a threshold for voter turnout is built on the fact that the unfounded Guatemalan claim is something more important than say ordinary elections, and therefore a “clear majority” of registered voters must approve the ICJ option. Never mind the foolishness coming out of Belmopan, the fact remains that the ICJ pathway is fraught with danger, and could very well lead to a change of our borders. You would not believe so though, given the pronouncements of Sedi and Assad.
In trying to convince us that the Guatemalan demand is reasonable, our Foreign Minister has declared that the referendum threshold is “anomalous”. This is not true at all. In fact there are several countries that have established thresholds for referenda. Our own Constitution establishes thresholds that exceed a simple majority in relation to constitutional amendments. Constitutional amendments of the ordinary kind require a two-thirds majority in the House, whereas those of an extraordinary kind (as set out at Schedule 2 of the Constitution) require a muscular three-quarters majority. Contrast that with the normal law making process where “the ayes have it”.
Globally, several countries have set referendum thresholds, albeit to varying degrees. In Japan, voter turnout thresholds range from 33.3% to 70% even for a simple matter such as the amalgamation of municipalities. In Denmark, for a referendum to be legitimized, a proposal must receive votes amounting to 40% of all registered voters. In Ireland it is 30%. Italian law affords a simple majority but with a minimum voter turnout of 50% in order to legitimize a referendum.
Both the Swiss and the Australians require a double majority in a referendum; in the case of the latter, for a constitutional change to be approved it requires a simple majority nationwide in addition to a simple majority in four out of its six states. This approach ensures proper representation notwithstanding the size of the voter population in each of the six districts.
Canada is one country that understands best the potential loss of territory by referendum. As a result, in 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a special majority requirement should be enacted lest a narrow majority of voters in Quebec vote for secession without negotiations with the rest of Canada. The Clarity Bill that sought to implement these recommendations stipulates that the outcome of any referendum concerning secession “must be a clear expression of a will by a clear majority of a province to cease to be a part of Canada.” The bill, however, does not specify a percentage that represents a “clear majority”—so typical of politicians.
The unfounded Guatemalan claim is of such national importance that, in my view, the verdict of the ICJ Referendum should be clear and conclusive. One would have to be a fool to argue that a voter turnout of less than 60% is clear and conclusive. If we examine the numbers it becomes even clearer why we need to have a threshold; and in fact the numbers might present a case for increasing the threshold from 60% to 80%, instead of reducing it.
The voters list used in the 2015 general elections establishes a voter population of 198,587. Under the current Referendum Act, 60% of those voters would have to turn out to vote in order for the results to be valid; that is a minimum of 117,952 voters. Fifty percent plus one at this level of turnout would be 58,976 voters voting for or against the ICJ; the troubling thing here is that 58,976 voters represent a mere 30% of all registered voters.
It does not seem entirely right to me, that 30% of all registered voters should send us to the ICJ and to the possible dismemberment of Belize. Even so, Sedi, Assad and Guatemala are saying to us to remove the voter turnout threshold?
What really is your motive, Sedi and Assad? Who or what is tickling your fancy?
Major Lloyd Jones (R)