From 1954 to 1979, the People’s United Party (PUP) won seven consecutive national elections. From 1954 to 1974, however, its percentage of the votes cast shrunk in every election, until the PUP barely got more than half of the votes in the 1974 general election, though they won two-thirds of the seats.
With little more than half of the votes, however, the PUP continued to rule with an iron hand after 1974. The key element in PUP dominance of Belize’s public life was the government monopoly radio station – Radio Belize.
Parliamentary democracy requires a two-party system, so that the people are presented with a choice when they go to the polls. In the higher form of parliamentary democracy, the total of Opposition seats and the ruling party backbenchers is more than the total of Cabinet Ministers. What this means is that any motion presented in the House of Representatives by the Cabinet executive can be defeated by a legislature coalition between Opposition representatives and ruling party backbenchers. This possibility has never existed in the flawed Belizean version of democracy, however, because both PUP and UDP governments have religiously made sure that almost every one of their ruling party representatives is in the Cabinet. Thus, decisions made in Cabinet are automatically passed by Belize’s House. Belize’s putative parliamentary democracy has always been deliberately sabotaged by the PUDP.
In 2013, the political awareness/education of the Belizean people is at its highest level ever. This does not mean we are where we would like to be where political awareness/education is concerned, but things are better than they have ever been. This is the direct result of the proliferation of, in the first instance, radio stations, followed by the proliferation of television stations. The proliferation of radio stations occurred because PUDP governments, in the service of Belize’s shadowy oligarchy as they undoubtedly are, were afraid of the potential impact of KREM Radio, Belize’s first private, commercial radio station, which was established by this newspaper in 1989. Since that time, PUDP governments have felt that the way to neutralize KREM’s roots vibes was to provide political, religious, and other special interest applicants with radio stations all over Belize. To an extent, this tactic has backfired. One of these religious broadcast stations, for instance, has become a thorn in the side of the present government. Multiple talk shows all over the nation of Belize have involved the masses of the Belizean people in socio-political discourse to an unprecedented extent.
When Belizean voters first broke the PUP’s electoral monopoly in 1984, there were some Belizeans, including ourselves, who proposed that this was the time for Belize to change to proportional representation from the first-past-the-post system. The new UDP Prime Minister, Hon. Manuel Esquivel, immediately rejected that proposition, declaring publicly that he “believed in strong government.”
Belize still has this bogus first-past-the-post, and we still have governments which rule with a power which is disproportionate to the amount of popular support they enjoy. We saw this between 1989 and 1993, when the PUP won only 15 out of 28 seats but ruled as per usual. The UDP won by a 16 to 13 seat margin in 1993, receiving 2,000 popular votes fewer than the Opposition PUP did, but the UDP ruled with an iron hand, going so far as to stay in power two months longer than their official five-year term. Today, the UDP are in power with a narrow 17 to 14 majority, one of their area representatives is embroiled in a major passport scandal, and the Prime Minister is doing all he can to protect that area representative in order to preserve his political rule. If that area representative were recalled and the UDP lost his seat in a bye-election, the UDP’s margin would be a very, very uncomfortable 16-15.
The answer to all this disconnect between the Prime Minister and the Belizean people would have been proportional representation. In the Elvin Penner matter, the Prime Minister, we think, is going against the wishes of the Belizean people because of what he understands as his political party’s (and government’s) political expediency. Under proportional representation, there would have been smaller political parties forming part of the government. If we are to judge from countries which have adopted proportional representation, there would have been political parties representing the trade unions, the business community, civil society, and perhaps the churches. If Mr. Barrow insisted on protecting Penner under proportional representation, all the smaller parties would have to do was withdraw their support and the Barrow government would fall. New elections would have to be held, a new consensus established. This is proportional representation, parliamentary democracy at the higher level, greater power for the Belizean people.
As things stand under this contradictory first-past-the post, where PUDP Belizean governments have exercised real power which was greater than their popular support, we are experiencing a period of political turmoil because of the Penner incident, and this turmoil may become extended in nature. This is because the Barrow government is substantially stronger, constitutionally speaking, than its present popularity.
Our shadowy oligarchy does not want proportional representation, because that would endanger the “returns” on their campaign donations. Under proportional representation, the Musa government would have fallen in 2005, and Belize would have been spared three years of headaches. Under proportional representation, the present Barrow government would fall and there would have to be new elections. Straight like that.