Prime Minister-elect Dean Barrow was be sworn in at 10:00 yesterday morning, Friday, in Belmopan, as he prepares to reconstitute a new administration with a maximum of 15 Cabinet ministers, limited by the Constitution to two-thirds of the elected representatives of the ruling party, and four appointed senators who can also act as ministers of government.
This limitation comes because the United Democratic Party (UDP) was returned to office for its first back-to-back term following dual March 7, 2012, elections with what Barrow has conceded, at a press conference convened Thursday at the Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City, is a much reduced mandate, with a very narrow margin of victory—6% of the popular votes.
With a much slimmer win than the 25-6 victory it got in the 2008 elections, the UDP now also has reduced powers to alter the Belize Constitution, and it faces the limitation of not being able to make constitutional amendments without the agreement of the Opposition.
Reminiscent of the UDP’s narrow victory 19 years ago, in 1993, when it garnered 16 of 29 seats, the UDP won 17 of 31 available seats. Only 11 of the winners can hold ministerial portfolios, Barrow explained Thursday evening. He said that he would announce his new Cabinet next Tuesday, after spending the weekend in Placencia to relax and mull over the matter.
The UDP, receiving 49.88% of the overall popular votes in general elections (of 130,258 reportedly cast), lost in 14 of 31 electoral divisions. Two more PUP victories would have meant the demise of the UDP.
Although it gained the divisions of Albert and Lake Independence in Belize City—recently rescinded by the PUP incumbents Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde, respectively—the UDP fell in 8 divisions it had won in the last general elections of 2008.
Barrow told the media Thursday that the pro-poor programs which allowed them to retain support in Belize District must not have been felt in the districts; but he also indicated that 6 of the losses were due to the candidates—not the party—since the results of the municipal elections also polled Wednesday were in favor of the UDP in those locations.
The UDP won 44 of the 67 municipal seats available (a sizeable majority of 66%), while the PUP won 23. (See story on municipal elections by Aaron Humes.)
Similarly, the UDP won a large majority of seats in central Belize: 10 of 13 seats in the Belize District and 4 of 6 seats in Cayo. However, it won only 2 of 4 seats in Corozal, and 1 of 3 seats in Orange Walk. It was a blowout for the UDP in the south of Belize, where the party lost all 4 seats—not at all expected by the UDP, which went into the elections, called a year in advance of the due date, confident of another national sweep.
The political race was really between the mass parties, the UDP and the Opposition People’s United Party, with the third parties and independent candidates still not receiving a substantial endorsement from the voting population.
The People’s National Party’s Wil Maheia, a widely-known activist who ran in Toledo East, got less than 6% of the votes, and single digit results was the overall trend for this category of candidates. The UDP’s Peter Eden Martinez, who was Minister of Human Development and Social Transformation, lost in that division to the PUP’s Michael Espat.
Carlos Diaz, former area representative of the PUP in Lake I, who beat the UDP’s Hubert Elrington in that division in 1989, returned as an independent candidate this time, due to Cordel Hyde’s retreat from politics, but got only 7% of the votes this time around.
Meanwhile, Bobby Lopez, a founding member of Vision Inspired by the People and head of the Belize Unity Alliance, an umbrella group of the third parties, ran in Belize Rural South but garnered a little less than 7% of the votes as well.
Whereas the UDP declared a resounding victory in Belize City strongholds such as Mesopotamia, Queen’s Square, Collet and Port Loyola in the first few hours of counting, as the votes were being reconciled and counted in the south, west and north of Belize, it became clear that the UDP candidates in those parts of the country were in trouble.
Barrow—who quickly returned his 7th consecutive win in Queen’s Square with a 3:1 defeat of Anthony Sylvestre, Jr., in a division formed in 1984—conceded that at one point during the night, when it appeared that the UDP would get a trouncing, he retreated with thoughts of a concession speech, and the usual victory speech and rally was not held until Thursday night.
Dangriga fell to the PUP, with Ivan Ramos, grandson of Thomas Vincent Ramos, deposing the UDP’s Arthur Roches, and the entire municipal elections in Dangriga returned a “blue” win, with a clear PUP sweep of the Dangriga Town Hall.
To Barrow’s shock, the entire south of Belize—not just Dangriga—went “blue”, with the biggest upset being in Toledo West, where the incumbent, Juan Coy, who held the post of Minister of State in the Ministry of Human Development and Social Transformation, was sent a resounding message of disapproval. His opponent, the People’s United Party’s Oscar Requeña, beat him by a margin of 70% or 1,307 votes. Toledo West had one of the highest voter turnouts, registering at 82.62% of registered voters, well above the national average of 73%.
More UDP incumbents have fallen off the political radar:
Michael “Hutchy” Hutchinson, formerly Minister of State/Ministry of Local Gov’t and Rural Development, was beaten by the PUP’s Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, former Port Loyola area representative, and she now stands as the only elected female parliamentarian for the next 5-year term of office, her win being symbolically confirmed on the International Day for Women, March 8.
The UDP’s Salvador Fernandez, a veteran in the political battleground, was booted out by the newcomer, Joseph Mahmud, in Cayo North; Ramon Witz was evicted by Julius Espat in Cayo South; Gabriel Martinez, who was Minister of Labour, Local Government and Rural Development, lost his Corozal South West seat to Ramiro Ramirez.
Minister of Transport, Communications and National Emergency Management Melvin Hulse lost his seat in Stann Creek West, by a margin of 21%, making way for the return of Rodwell Ferguson in that division.
On the other side of the political fence, the PUP’s Valdemar Castillo, who held the PUP stronghold of Corozal North for six consecutive elections or just short of three decades (1979 to 2008), has been hit with his second consecutive UDP defeat, although the UDP’s margin of victory has tightened a bit, from 13% in the 2008 elections (when the PUP lost in the division for the first time) to a margin of 8% this time around. The UDP’s Nemencio Acosta deposed Castillo in 2008, and it was the UDP’s Hugo Patt who beat him by 209 votes this time around.
In one of the most high profile races in this election, the UDP’s Caribbean Shores candidate Santino “Santi” Castillo, a well-known businessman, musician, and sportsman, entered the race to take the place of Carlos Perdomo, who had retired his seat. Santi won over Dr. David Hoy by 676 votes or a comfortable 51% margin.
All the PUP candidates seeking re-election were returned to office—former PUP leader Said Musa growing his margin of victory from around 40% to nearly 70%, and in the case of Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca, with a wider margin than in the 2008 general elections. Fonseca had won in 2008 by only 16 votes or a 1% margin, but he increased his margin this time to 150 votes or 10.65%. The gain made by Fonseca was significant, since his division, Freetown, was deemed by the ruling United Democratic Party to be a sure win. The UDP’s standard bearer for that division, Lee Mark Chang, sadly but graciously conceded victory when it was clear that Fonseca would hold on to his seat.
Leading into the elections, there were concerns that the PUP would have to find a new leader in parliament if Fonseca was unable to hold on to his seat. The Freetown victory ensures that he stays as Leader of the Opposition—or if the PUP has its way in challenging Wednesday’s election outcome, Belize’s next prime minister.
The PUP announced at a press conference held 4:00 p.m. Thursday that it has not conceded defeat, because it will proceed to file at least three election petitions, challenging the process and outcome of the elections in Cayo North East, where Orlando “Landy” Habet fell to Elvin Penner in the tightest race in the general elections, decided by as little as 17 votes; Cayo Central, where Rene Montero beat Collet Montero by 44 votes or a 1.8% margin; and Lake I, where former PUP standard bearer Yolanda Schakron was rejected due to her dual Belize and US nationalities, despite a move prior to nomination to renounce her US citizenship.
The PUP’s Communications Director and legal advisor, Lisa Shoman, explained to the media that they have a limit of 21 days to file their petitions.
“That’s their business. The law gives the defeated candidate the right to file. It is obviously the desperation of a party that’s lost,” Barrow told us in response. He added that in all of Belize’s election history, not one election petition has succeeded. “They are wasting their time,” said Barrow, calling the Opposition “sore losers.”
In detailing the charges that would be made in filing the two Cayo petitions, Shoman said that in the case of Penner’s division of Cayo North East, the PUP is charging “bribery and misconduct,” partly based on a public statement by Penner that he was paying fees and facilitating the immediate registration of naturalized Belizeans in order to get their political support. Shoman also said that they have photographic evidence of “bribery and misconduct” on election day. She added that the call for a recount of that box was flatly denied. As for Cayo Central, she said that there was a discrepancy in the number of votes reported from that division, and their agents were refused their right to accompany the ballot boxes to the counting station for that division.
Fonseca made it clear that the PUP may file more petitions, based on any other reports of election irregularities. He noted that there was a 30-vote separation that decided the victory on election day, but charged that despite the public declarations by Barrow at an earlier press conference of victory, his party had yet to receive the official results, authenticated by the Elections and Boundaries Department.
Due to several failed attempts our newspaper also made in trying to access the final and official results of the dual elections, Amandala visited the Elections and Boundaries Office right after the PUP press conference and we were supplied with the final figures in hard copy. The office informed us that they had already sent the final results to the PUP secretariat, and we confirmed that they had also recently posted the results for public access online, on their website, www.elections.gov.bz.
Unlike previous elections, the media was unable to access partial election results online, despite early conclusion of the counting in certain electoral divisions, such as Albert, Mesopotamia, Fort George and Queen’s Square.
The earliest division called at around 8:40 Wednesday was the Albert, which saw the lowest voter turnout of 59.31%.
Barrow said that he is highly disappointed in himself for the election outcome. He said that going into the elections, nobody could have convinced him that the UDP would have won less than 20 of the 31 seats.
Ambassador Frank Almaguer, chief of the Organization of American States’ Elections Observer Mission, dispatched to Belize to monitor the elections on the invitation of the Government of Belize, described Belize’s election as “highly competitive.” He said that a 70% voter turnout in the region is “not only impressive,” but practically unheard of.
The OAS mission did pinpoint some concerns, such as the dearth of women’s participation in Belizean politics, the use of public government resources, such as vehicles, for electioneering, and campaign financing and electioneering close to the polls on election day. He referred to the observation of a mission agent that voters who exited the polls were paid cash by a political agent, but it was not clear what for.
Prime Minister Barrow was taken aback with criticism of the time-honored tradition in Belize in which party agents and runners wear campaign t-shirts and advertise banners very near to the polling stations.
The OAS mission’s full report will be available perhaps in the next few weeks on their website.