Features — 23 March 2019
Why the referendum threshold matters and the lies being told
“5A(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or any other law, no referendum shall be valid unless at least sixty percent of the registered electors in the entire country, or in the particular district or area where the referendum is to be held, as the case may be, have cast their votes.” Amendment #1 of 2008 Referendum Act Chapter 10, Laws of Belize

One of the first legislative changes that the Barrow Administration took on upon entering government in 2008 was to pass the amendment to the old Referendum Act, with the view that the people of this country would have a full say in how to initiate a referendum and ensuring it carries a majority mandate of the voting population. One of the major amendments was the setting of a threshold of 60% of registered voters who must participate in a referendum to make it valid. This was critical, and ironically it was a threshold that I knew mattered if there was to be a resounding mandate. While I worked at OCEANA and wanted a referendum on the issue of offshore drilling, I accepted that this threshold had to be met. It made sense that on matter of national interest you wanted a resounding mandate and not a rule by a minority, especially since at least a third of the population are minors and thus we wanted to make sure that the present generation was making decisions for the next generation not based on a handful but on a majority of those eligible to vote.

Another amendment made among those 2008 changes was to repeal the then section 2 and replace it with a provision that widens the scope on how a referendum can be held. That is where it allowed for any citizen to gather signatures in a petition and ask the Governor General to hold a referendum. There the threshold of voters that can call for a referendum by petition is 10 percent if it’s a referendum on a national issue and 25% if it’s on an issue confined to an area.  Then once they pass this hurdle and threshold, they had to ensure that on referendum day 60% or more of the voting population came out to vote.

In the old Act and the amended 2008 Act, the provisions which state that a referendum must be held if there is “any proposed settlement with the Republic of Guatemala for resolving the Belize/Guatemala dispute” were untouched. Thus, when PM Barrow made that amendment he did so consciously knowing he was placing the 60% threshold on the referendum dealing with the Belize/Guatemala claim. So why change it to not require that threshold but a simple majority?

What was key in that 2008 amendment was that the issue of Guatemala or any national issue or a local issue could not be validly decided at a referendum except if 60 % of the electors in the county or area participated in the process and the majority from that 60% carried the vote. This, however, all changed in 2017, when by Act No 20 of 2017 this very same Prime Minister Barrow who had said he was securing the interest of the people, turned around and undid his own amendment and removed from the laws one of the safety mechanisms that would have ensured that a matter as important and the Belize/Guatemala claim would be decided by not less than 60% of the voting population. Here is what the amendment now sates:

“5A. For greater certainty, it is declared that the issue or matter submitted to a referendum shall be decided by a simple majority of the votes cast.”

Simple majority means that if only one or ten percent of the registered voters show up at the polls then the majority of those will decide the issue. So imagine a matter as important as the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty can be decided by such a small group and a simple majority of that group.

Before this amendment in 2008 the old Referendum act made no mention of any threshold to be met if there is a referendum, so impliedly it was a simple majority that was in place then, but the new UDP government wanted to put in place “safety” mechanisms and wanted wide participation in decisions to be made by referendum. If we go back to the Hansard of the National Assembly, you will note that PM Barrow lauded this amendment as being in the interest of the Belizean people. So why the change now? Is there no longer interest of the Belizean people at heart?

Guatemala demanded we change our referendum threshold!

Now when I wanted a referendum, I geared myself that if we should be able to meet the petition threshold, we would work hard to get out the 60% of voters on Referendum Day. Of course I preferred to have the mandate of the larger population. Yet when Guatemalan authorities started kicking up dust about the threshold that Belize must meet in order to have a valid referendum, they ‘faacedly’ demanded we change our Referendum Act to suit them and lo and behold our same PM did just that. By 16th February, 2017 the Guatemalans got their Valentine’s gift from our government to them, but no love to our people and as we now see, this threshold issue does matter.  When then Foreign Minister Honorable Wilfred Elrington was interviewed by a reporter in 2016 about this proposed amendment he said: “Cabinet has taken the decision to take the amendment to the Referendum Act and have it passed into law on the 9th of December,[2016] the effect of that will be that when we hold the referendum, for there to be a successful referendum the majority will have to be simple majority —  50% of those people who go to vote plus one and that is going to make the referendum a successful one.”

Reporter: “Sir, we are effectively lowering our referendum threshold; explain to us why is this necessary and how does it help in trying to further this agenda, resolving the Guatemala claim once and for all?”

Honorable Wilfred Elrington: “All we are doing is making the referendum threshold consistent with all the other thresholds that we have for elections, the majority of the people, the decision the majority of the people is what prevails and in this case and as with all elections the majority is 50% plus one so it was never intended that a referendum should be any different, we had legislation which suggested a higher threshold in relation to referendum but it had no intention of really being the case in relation into this particular issue, the issue of the Belize/Guatemala claim when the decision was taken way back in the 60’s to have the matter resolved by referendum. Had the people decided whether it should go to the ICJ or whether we should accept any other solution by referendum the contemplation was not that it should be anything other than 50% plus one.”

Now that is a blatant lie! For one, the simple majority they passed in 2017 came after Guatemala not only pressured Belize but even pulled out of the agreement in 2013 and to appease them our government made the change. Then Guatemala went a step further and asked that the agreement be amended so they could go ahead and have the referendum before Belize. And note Elrington did not answer the question posed by the reporter: how does it help in trying to further this agenda, resolving the Guatemala claim once and for all?” But the answer, in my view, and what is happening on the ground, is that by reducing the threshold and doing later re-registration and disenfranchising many voters and launching a one-sided yes-campaign, the government is effectively ensuring the yes vote wins come referendum day!

The next big lie is that it was never intended for a referendum to be any different from an election. If that was so then why did the UDP administration under PM Barrow go at lengths to make the threshold amendment? That is a lie because one has to go back and look at what was in the law previously and what was deliberately amended and how the government did not mistakenly set a threshold in amending the Referendum Act, but deliberately did so. And it is a lie that a referendum on the Belize/Guatemala issue should not be any different, as if only that issue required the 60% when the amendment requires that ANY and ALL issues taken to referendum, and not particularly this one issue, required the 60% threshold. The wording is clear and unambiguous when it states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or any other law, no referendum shall be valid unless at least sixty percent of the registered electors”

But while GOB has taken the stance that lowering the threshold is the best way forward in the matter, there are those who believe that amending the act is simply GOB giving in to Guatemala’s demands. Elrington, though, thinks otherwise when pressed by the reporter:

Reporter: “There are those who have formed the view that by Belize choosing to rectify the referendum threshold to bring it to a simple majority, they view this as Belize somehow giving up ground or passively accepting pressure that Guatemala has brought on Belize, what is your thought on that?”

Hon. Wilfred Elrington: “That view really has no basis, it is not a view that is grounded on any basis really, but human beings are complex and people form all kinds of views and they are entitled to their view. I am simply saying that what we are doing now is what was contemplated from the 1960’s and what it was expected from us from the international community and what is right under the circumstances. The move to amend the legislation is a perfectly good one, as a matter of fact it is one that all of our allies and supporters have expected us to do and it is basically consistently that early thinking and what is regarded as the best way to move forward with respect to this matter.”

Sad that he would say indirectly that we are appeasing all others, especially foreign interests,  except our people. If indeed it was envisioned from the 60’s, before our independence, that we would go to referendum and that it would be a simple majority of those who turn out to vote that would determine the issue, then why when the UDP under leadership of Barrow took office they not only proposed the amendment and added the 60% threshold, but hailed it as a great achievement? The archives will show that to the 25th April, 2008 PM Barrow stood up in the National Assembly and went at lengths to explain this amendment and stated:

“We’re saying for this referendum to be carried you have to have at least 60% of the electorate either countrywide or in a particular area turn out to vote. But once 60% votes, then  simple majority of those voting will decide the issue. … That is what this particular bill is all about.”

That is what it was all about then, until Guatemala demanded and our government acquiesced to change the 60% threshold and turn around and spew lies to the Belizean public! Follow the money my people… follow the money (more on this later)! Fact-check the lies and see why I cannot be part of that corrupted process and prefer to vote no!

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Deshawn Swasey

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