Barrow rolls the dice March 7!
A week removed from the fourth anniversary of his administration being elected on February 7, 2008, Prime Minister of Belize Dean Barrow announced just before noon on Tuesday, January 31, that he would seek a renewed mandate from the Belizean electorate, calling a general election for 31 members of the House of Representatives on March 7, 2012.
Also on that date, elections for 2 city and 7 town councils will be conducted. These are statutorily held on the first Wednesday after the last day of February every three years.
On Tuesday morning, reportedly following meetings with Cabinet and the parliamentary caucus, the Prime Minister visited Governor General Sir Colville Young, and advised him to dissolve the National Assembly with effect from tomorrow, Friday, February 3, and set nomination day for the general elections two weeks later on February 17, two days after the date set for municipal election nominations, on February 15.
In a recorded statement aired on national radio and television, the Prime Minister described the overall record of his administration as “a stellar one,” stating that “we have accomplished much in this first term…”, “…despite the continuing global crisis, despite the vagaries of nature, despite freak storms and hurricanes, and despite the super-bond.”
As proof, the P.M. cited various tax reliefs, the vaunted “pro-poor initiatives” such as the food basket subsidy program, the conditional cash transfer program, scholarships and monetary grants for high school students, expansion of remedial and vocational education; new housing construction and home repairs and improvement; infrastructural improvement; the gang truce and subsequent reduction in murder rate; and “enshrined nationalism,” both in the Constitution and in Belize’s political culture by returning majority control of public utilities to the State, allowing for lower rates and improved service.
But most significantly, states the Prime Minister, his administration has been able to “return our homeland to credibility and honest stewardship,” and cites this and the regaining of public utilities as “perhaps the greatest jewel in the crown of UDP achievements.”
In making the case for an early election, which he had said up to last week would be more likely to have been called later this year and after the municipal elections, Prime Minister Barrow stated, “…the forces opposed to our nationalism and our social justice continue to fight. At home and abroad they assault our pro-poor and pro-people policies, and some of them claim to have you on their side. We reject that and know they are wrong. But as proof we want a clear reaffirmation now of the mandate for us to continue and expand our mission. We want you to arm us and support us so we can tell the world that there will be no turning back…”
Describing the electorate as “our comfort and our strength” and “our monitors and our judges” and acknowledging that “politically we answer only to you,” the P.M. said he was now asking for “clear instructions” from the citizenry, to “consolidate and to strike out in new directions.” While expressing confidence in the performance of his administration to date, he acknowledged that coming back to Belizeans is the only way to know for sure if the majority of voters approve of that performance.
Having a double election, Barrow remarked, would “save the taxpayer money and mean a single, quick healing process,” especially after the usual “hard-fought, costly…divisive” nature of the upcoming campaign. He concluded by appealing for all political parties and candidates to maintain Belize’s record of peaceful elections, expressing confidence in the work of the public officers who will be put in charge, and promising to invite international observers to “come and help make sure of the integrity of our balloting.”
UDP: We’ll be back
The Prime Minister called his last press conference in that capacity for 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza’s River Hall.
In his opening statement there, Barrow expressed his “gratitude” to the party and nation for being given an opportunity to serve as Prime Minister, and while confidently declaring that he “fully expect[ed] to be back here” after March 7, also stated that whatever decision Belizeans make, he would accept and embrace it as another measure of Belize’s democracy.
But it appears that the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage (BCSNH) and member Oceana will not get their requested referendum on offshore drilling for petroleum and drilling in protected areas on March 7, after the P.M. appeared to dismiss the call by the Coalition and Oceana to push through the referendum, stating that only the Governor General sets the date for a referendum — within the issued writ of referendum, at least 30 days after that issuance, assuming that the verification of signatures establishes at least 10% of the electorate had signed, and no one, not even the National Assembly, can do otherwise. (We will have more on this in a separate story elsewhere in this issue.)
The P.M. also closed the door on a re-registration exercise, which we had reported last week would not be decided on until July, 2012, the end of a five-year extension by the second administration of former Prime Minister Said Musa, but he told us that the traditional process of the court handling objections to new voters would weed out any questionable applicants in the wake of the granting of citizenship to 1,098 new Belizeans in January.
P.M. Barrow, speaking before an audience of his standard bearers, municipal aspirants and campaign workers, vigorously defended his pro-poor initiatives when we questioned him about whether those programs would be extended through the campaign season, and whether that would undermine the promise of a clean, influence-free campaign. He pointed out that there is provision in the 2011-12 budget for all of the programs initiated by his administration, which will be continued if they are re-elected, and that in the case of the Christmas Assistance Program, (in which $1.2 million was siphoned from the dividends acquired by the Government from the $15 million profits last year of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) and routed through various Ministries for assistance to needy constituents across the country), a report was made to the House as per procedure. A portion of those BTL dividends, he noted, would also make up for the shortfall in housing spending and home repairs and improvement.
Contrary to previous administrations and particularly the second Musa administration, Barrow told Amandala, they have managed to avoid the dent in budget caused by borrowing for the election campaign. His national tour, scheduled to continue this Sunday in Orange Walk, for instance, does not use any government resources.
Barrow also said he had “no apologies” to make on the naturalization process so criticized by many, because there was nothing illegal or improper done by any of his officials, who only facilitated those who had “bottlenecked” applications for citizenship in Belmopan, adding that he believes in the immigration process as a boost to national development.
Barrow also touched on oil issues and the recent poor behavior of two aspirants, Cayo South area representative Hon. Ramon Witz and San Pedro Town Council candidate Dr. Severo Guerrero, Jr. Dr. Guerrero, who was caught without authority in the San Pedro Election and Boundaries Office after hours several weeks ago, has been formally reprimanded by his party for his role in the affair, which the Prime Minister called “totally unacceptable,” even though he said he believed Guerrero’s claim that he was invited by the officer in charge, Marilee Squires, who has been suspended pending further investigation, into the office to fix a computer problem.
Hon. Witz was caught on video recently appearing to chop down a post with a PUP flag in a yard in the village of Valley of Peace, Cayo, with a crowd witnessing, and then apparently exchanging words with the videographer as he walked off. The P.M. placed that report in the context of alleged repeated vandalism practiced by supporters of Witz’s opponent, Julius Espat, and noted that the homeowner is one of the UDP’s supporters and gave no permission for any PUP flag to be put in her yard, and moreover, gave Witz a machete personally to take the post and flag down. A general caution has been issued to all UDP candidates to watch their behavior in light of these incidents.
The P.M. indicated that he would consider, in the right “circumstances,” a debate with his opponent in the PUP, Francis Fonseca.
PUP: All is not well
Contrasting with the tone of confidence of the incumbents is the gravity of the Opposition, whose Leader, Francis Fonseca, answered the election call later on Tuesday.
Opening his nationally televised address with a dig at the UDP’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Imagine the possibilities,” Fonseca announced: “In the Prime Minister’s world of imaginary possibilities, all is well in Belize, life has never been better. The UDP record, he says, is a ‘stellar’ one. Well, those of us living and working in the ‘real’ Belize know that Belize is facing a serious economic crisis. Our people are struggling in the worst kind of way. Cost of living keeps getting higher and higher. The food, light and water bills, school fees, rent and medical expenses are a heavy burden on our people. Wages are frozen. Unemployment is rampant, rising from 8.5% in 2007 to 24% after four years of UDP mismanagement of the economy.”
Fonseca cited the “policies and arrogance” of the Barrow administration as the main reason for a “destroyed” investment climate, lack of economic growth, lost jobs and businesses and attendant social ills.
His prescription is a return of the blue and white to Independence Hill: “…we need a new PUP Government with clear plans and solutions to our social and economic problems. The PUP will deliver us from the stifling air of uncertainty and anxiety that prevails today and will set free the creative and enterprising spirit of the Belizean people…”
Fonseca emphasized job creation, progressive reform, tackling crime and violence and new vision in education and health.
“The UDP want this election to be about the past. You passed judgment on the PUP in February of 2008. This 2012 election is about the future…. Together we can move Belize forward but it will require a Government that is serious, competent and focused on solutions notpolitics…” said Fonseca, in explanation of the PUP’s view of how the election should be fought.
“The PUP is committed to a positive, peaceful campaign. The political parties will have their say but the Belizean people will have their way…” Fonseca concluded his address.
In speaking with Amandala on Wednesday, Hon. Fonseca, who is seeking a third term in the Freetown division against the UDP’s Lee Mark Chang, drew comparison between the first double election, called by Rt. Hon. Said Musa for March 5, 2003, and this election.
“The economy was a lot stronger in 2003, unemployment was not serious and while the party faced some challenges on its performance, we were much stronger and still fairly popular. In 2012 the economy is weak; unemployment and poverty have increased. Voters voted to continue the progress in 2003. I think they will vote to change the state of affairs now, because the UDP have no solutions.”
Fonseca told us he believes that with the municipal elections on the same day, some of the dynamics change, but the PUP, he stated, has “good, strong, effective teams across the country who will help our general election candidates in their constituencies.” He added that despite the tendency for some Belizeans to vote for municipal and central governments formed by the same party, there is evidence of dissatisfaction in the municipalities.
The PUP has been in preparation for an early election, and a March 7 election, since December, and with the replacement of Anthony Mahler in Caribbean Shores by Dr. David Hoy now complete, no further shockwaves should hit Independence Hall.
(Our discussion with Hon. Fonseca touched other major issues, and we will report on this in our next issue).
BUA: Time for change
The newly formed Belize Unity Alliance (BUA), a combination of the Belmopan-based Vision Inspired by the People (VIP), Toledo-based People’s National Party (PNP) and various independent candidates, presented itself this morning, Thursday, as an alternative choice to their longer-established political brethren. (The Alliance is only fighting general elections; the individual parties will contest in Belize City and Belmopan (VIP) and Punta Gorda (PNP), and the independents will contest in San Pedro, Belize City, Belmopan and Punta Gorda.)
At the Chateau Caribbean Hotel, nine candidates – newly elected political leader Robert “Bobby” Lopez in Belize Rural South; his deputy Wil Maheia in Toledo East; Roberto Campos in Corozal Southwest; Marcel Bedran in Cayo North; former PUP Minister Frederick Hunter in Belize Rural Central; Rufus X in Belize Rural North; Charles Leslie, Jr., chair of Placencia in the Stann Creek West constituency; and Richard Smith, who was not present, in Belmopan – stepped forward and declared themselves ready to lead after five decades of the blue and red in charge.
Lopez told the assembled press that the BUA is dedicated to “zero tolerance for corruption,” and endorsed the Prime Minister’s announcement of international observers for the elections.
But there will be self-policing as well. Lopez warned that after Friday, the UDP’s elected ministers and area reps are “ordinary persons” and should not exercise any powers they held prior to dissolution, and are not entitled to the perks of power – government vehicles, etc.
The BUA leader also called on his opponents to adhere to the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act and publish in local newspapers (in lieu of the defunct Integrity Commission) their annual disclosure of assets, liabilities, etc. by the election date and for the parties to disclose their campaign financing sources and budget. The BUA will hold itself to the latter promise and Lopez said they will pursue court action for those who do not disclose and encourage Belizeans not to vote for any offenders.
Maheia added a call for the Election and Boundaries Department to review the placement of polling stations, particularly in his native Toledo.
While the BUA is still in its infancy, only three of its candidates – Smith, Lopez and Maheia – represent even a portion of a municipal area. While Lopez told Amandala that there was nothing deliberate about the list of candidates, the BUA has noticed a trend of fear, particularly in the municipalities and Belize City especially (which has no representation in the Alliance) to come out to run. The BUA also issued a call to women for their participation; their counterparts, the UDP, have no women candidates in the general elections, while the PUP has 3.
Each candidate spoke, declaring that the people of Belize now have a choice apart from the red and the blue, and Lopez pledged that the work of unity will continue in the BUA even after the results of March 7’s polls are announced. There had been some obstacles in the past toward unity of the third party movement.
Candidate Bedran told Amandala, “Today, when we met in caucus here, it was the beginning of the end for the two-party system. There is that Chinese proverb about the journey beginning with the first step. This is the first step; we have to start somewhere.”
Answering questions about Belizeans concerned about appointing someone who can help them directly, by becoming a Minister, Rufus X adamantly maintained that area representatives can use what they are allocated to lobby for their constituencies, and are “servants” of the people. Recycling his famous ending line from the parting shot segment of the Kremandala Show, Rufus called on Belizeans to ask, “If my vote can do so much for you, Mr. Politician…what will my vote do for me, this time?”
With only nine candidates (sixteen is needed for an administration), the BUA may have to make alliances with the major parties, but it is committed, said Lopez, to work with any and everyone, and advocates unity at all levels.
To date, a total of 71 candidates, 68 men and 3 women, have declared their candidacies for each of the parties contesting the general elections. Both the incumbent UDP and challenger PUP have a full slate of 31 candidates, while the Belize Unity Alliance has 9.
In the municipal races, the PUP and UDP are fielding full slates in all 7 towns and both cities, Belize City and Belmopan, for a total of sixty-seven candidates each. The VIP have a partial slate of seven candidates, including mayoral candidate Paco Smith in Belize City, and a full slate of seven headed by Paul Morgan in their home base of Belmopan, while the PNP are challenging the main parties in Punta Gorda with a full slate.
For independent candidates, there is Mayoral candidate Melanie Paz in San Pedro and 2 councilor candidates; in Belize City, Mayoral aspirants Stephen Okeke and Ernesto Torres and Councilor aspirant Philip “Fawda” Henry; Mayoral aspirants in Belmopan Rudy Wade and Marlon Skeen; and in Punta Gorda, incumbent UDP councilor Orlando Muschamp, who has become estranged from his party, has publicly stated his intention to run independently.
(We will have more from the BUA press conference in our next issue).