EDITORIAL: Amandala

“Opposition PUP Leader Francis Fonseca has taken a very big gamble in driving Albert’s Mark Espat and Lake Independence’s Cordel Hyde out of their constituencies. The very big gamble is that David Craig and Yolanda Schakron will win Albert and Lake I, respectively, areas which were considered sure seats for the PUP with Espat and Hyde.

“The decision to alienate Espat and Hyde was inspired by the desire to establish ideological uniformity within the national executive of the party. That ideological uniformity appears to mean adherence to the principles of neoliberalism which were practiced by the two Said Musa governments which held office from August 1998 to March 2008.”

“Because the trade unions have not turned against the Barrow government for 2012 the way they did against the Musa government in 2008, we cannot presently visualize the possibility of a PUP landslide victory. That is why Fonseca is taking a very big gamble, because he may need the aforementioned two seats in order to claim victory.”

- pg. 7 editorial in Amandala of Sunday, February 12, 2012

In this Wednesday’s general elections, the incumbent United Democratic Party (UDP) barely avoided a repeat of the People’s United Party (PUP) experience in 1993. The UDP narrowly won this week’s general elections by a 17-14 margin, winning 8 seats in Belize City, 4 in Cayo, 2 in Corozal, 2 in Belize District Rural (North and South), and 1 in Orange Walk.

In 1993, the PUP called general elections 15 months early, with the Opposition divided between Manuel Esquivel’s UDP and Philip Goldson’s NABR. In January of that year, the PUP had defeated the divided Opposition in a Freetown constituency bye-election, and then smashed the separate parties in the March Belize City Council elections. When the general elections were called for June 30, 1993, however, the UDP and the NABR managed to forge a coalition. The PUP were overconfident and self-congratulatory in campaign, ending up losing, 16-13, to the UDP.

Late October and early November last year, the PUP changed Leaders twice in two weeks. Mark Espat replaced a resigned John Briceño, and then Espat gave up leadership to a handpicked Francis Fonseca. Because of the instability at the top of the PUP, the UDP itself conducted an overconfident and self-congratulatory campaign for this week’s general elections, which had been called a year early.

We thought the PUP ran a skillful, fundamentally sound political campaign. In fact, the UDP, in retrospect, were lucky to win, and they won mainly because they dominated Belize City. The decision of the PUP to give up two safe Belize City seats, Albert and Lake Independence, and take their chances with newcomer standard bearers, proved to be fatal.

Francis Fonseca’s approach to the PUP Albert and Lake I area representatives, Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde, was hard-line. Espat and Hyde had been fighting against the neoliberalism dominant in the Said Musa/Ralph Fonseca era and arguing for a return to the party’s foundation social justice. Francis’ decision, no doubt supported by Said and Ralph, to force them out, probably had an immediately unifying effect on the PUP, and paid early dividends in internal morale and mobilization. But, a safe seat is a safe seat, especially in a metropolitan area where you are weak. This business of elections is an arithmetic business.

In the ten weeks leading up to the general elections, the UDP bungled issue after issue – constituency handouts which excluded PUP area reps, mass naturalizations of immigrant voters, the mortgage writeoff confusion at the Social Security Board, and, finally, their arrogant rejection of the offshore drilling referendum initiative. In Toledo, there was a continuing rosewood extraction/exportation scandal, while both Mennonite and Belizean rice farmers, in Toledo, Cayo and Orange Walk, went to war with the Ministry of Agriculture, which was a leaking ship.

Critics, in hindsight, have heaped scorn on the PUP’s 1993 campaign slogan – “Building on success.” In essence, the UDP approach to their 2012 campaign propaganda amounted to similar self-infatuation. The Francis Fonseca public relations/communication team, meanwhile, were doing a good job of showing all their new faces and suggesting to voters, both implicitly and explicitly, that the PUP had turned over a new leaf. Belize City voters, who had reason to believe Ralph was still controlling the money and calling the shots on Meighan Avenue, did not buy it, but clearly the voters in the district did.

We thought Karen Bodden was a very good Belize City mayoral candidate, and the PUP propagandists’ visual use of her to increase Francis Fonseca’s credibility was effective. With the UDP’s having to apologizing so much for the two Zenaida Moya terms at City Hall, one thought the PUP CitCo campaign in Belize City would have yielded better results than it did.

The old guard’s move on Thursday morning, immediately following the verdict, to “scapegoat” Mark and Cordel, will have short term benefits, but the fact remains that Belize City is a hurdle they have to climb. The PUP can hardly expect to do much better in the districts than they did on Wednesday. But if you include the three Belize Rural seats as part of a Greater Belize City, just for argument’s sake, then the UDP won 10 out of 13 seats here. What are you going to do about that, Mr. PUP?

In a sense, the vaunted PUP thrill is gone. They have now lost 4 out of 7 general elections since independence. In those 7 general elections, there were 42 Belize City Southside seats up for grabs. The PUP won only 10 of those: Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde won 6 of those 10 between 1998 and 2008.

The UDP have their own problems. They could have been “taken” on Wednesday. They were saved by people like Belize Rural South’s Manuel Heredia, who had to go against his party’s categorical approval of offshore oil drilling in order to win; Belize Rural North’s Edmund Castro, whom the Prime Minister demoted from Cabinet; Corozal Bay’s shaky Pablo Marin, who won an arguably improbable victory; and an impressive newcomer in Corozal North, Hugo Patt. The honeymoon’s over, UDP. You must deliver, or you will be run out of town. The scrutiny in second terms always becomes more intense.

In closing, we wholeheartedly salute our often-maligned public officers and our security forces. You brethren and sistren are the backbone of our little democracy. They can say what they want about you, but you are the ones who make our elections as orderly and professional as they are. Big, big respect.

All power to the people.

Amandala