Whose turn to feed?
As a part of the Belize at Thirty Conference, spanning Tuesday, March 20 to Thursday, March 22, 2012, Belizean researcher Dylan Vernon delivered an insightful presentation on Wednesday afternoon, titled, "Our Turn to Feed: Exploring the Origins and Implications of Rampant 'Handout Politics' in Independent Belize."
Vernon said that during the course of his research, he interviewed 55 politicians, including the late George Price, Belize's first Prime Minister/Premier, as well as persons from four electoral divisions: Pickstock, Belmopan, Toledo West and Orange Walk Central.
In his presentation, Vernon demonstrated how handout politics emerged and expanded in Belize via three distinct phases on the trajectory: 1954-1981: the innocent or rooting phase; 1982-1989: the bridging phase; and 1990-present, 2012: the rampant or expansion phase.
The "innocent or rooting phase," he said, marks the beginning of Universal Adult Suffrage and the launch of electoral politics in Belize, the nascent period of political parties and their entrance into national elections.
This, Vernon demonstrated, centered on the paternalistic style of Price, which evolved to the extent that some believed that in order to get anything, one had to see Price himself.
The UDP didn't match the PUP's level of 'clientilism', not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't have as much money to rival the PUP's handout politics. Had they had the money, they would have done the same, Vernon said his research revealed.
The culture of bartering with politicians for votes has evidently become entrenched, and new trends continue to emerge, such as the most recent trend of paid callers (also known as "strategic callers") who publicly do the bidding of particular politicians.
He indicated that thousands in handouts are issued at Wednesday clinics held in the various electoral divisions, and while the general range is $6,000 to $9,000 monthly, the highest in a non-election year was reported at $15,000 per month. This, Vernon explained, excluded funds for things such as existing government projects in the division.
Although voter bribery is illegal in Belize, only one post-Independence case, brought by Amin Hegar in 1998, was actually taken to court and it was unsuccessful; while before Independence there were 6 cases without conviction.
The first set of challenges relates to the money trail, Vernon explained. With an average of $7,000 per constituency per month, he estimated that clinic handouts are in the region of $5.5 million per year. By comparison, he noted, this alone is twice the budget of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in the 2011-2012 budget.
He also pointed to the $2.7 million in X-mas assistance funds issued just before elections, but only to candidates of the ruling party, for distribution to people they chose. There was also another issuance of funds just before the elections, Vernon said.
"When such public funds are distributed through area representatives or candidates, it does indeed blur the line between party and state; it further weakens the ...institutions of the state and opens the door for allocations of public funds being less on merit and fairness and more on who may vote for [a politician]," said Vernon, noting that those who are more opportunistic and play the game better may get more, and may even double dip and triple dip, while others indeed get none or much less.
He also spoke of the connection between certain types of campaign financing and corruption: private donations to politicians help to fuel political corruption and public waste, because donors want returns via tax write-offs, concessions, fee waivers, bloated contracts, et cetera.
Vernon said that a well-known example in Belize is Michael Ashcroft - a major donor of both PUP and UDP since the 1990s.
"Over time, Ashcroft's returns on investment have included the appointment as Belize's representative to the United Nations... the purchase of majority shares in a public utility [BTL], and a government guarantee of 15% minimum profit before taxes..." he detailed.
The collective effect of increasing such transactions is less revenue for the public and for such things as social spending, which, he noted, contributes to a worsening record of financial transparency.
"In this regard," said Vernon, "we are now well aware that political corruption in Belize is described as rampant by Transparency International."
He added that Belize's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has jumped from 46 in 2003 to 109 in 2008.
"Handout politics has clearly been a significant contributor to this," he commented.
The problem now is, more and more people are seeing handout politics as the normal way to participate, to increase the allocation of resources in their favor.
"It has become a preferred mode of participation for a growing number of people," Vernon said.
As for Belize's relatively high level of voter participation, Vernon explained that many are voting based on which party or politician will "fix them up," politically. This, he said, is enough to swing elections, at both the constituency and national levels.
"Buying an election in small-sized Belize has become an increasingly attractive option, especially, again, as poverty is increasing," said Vernon.
He also noted that in Belize, a politician can easily monitor a voter's actions: if you don't vote in elections or if you vote in another party's convention-and sometimes they punish you for it.
This, he said, inhibits an individual's political freedom and corrupts the concept of people's participation.
The solution to handout politics may well present itself in a messy crisis, he warned.
"The level of handout politics in Belize we now have is not sustainable. We are quickly approaching the point where the changing 'clientilistic' parties, handout politics, will not be enough to solve their problems. There will be a point where there will not be enough handouts to appease enough people and the political parties will then have to 'wheel and come again'."
(Vernon is a former director of the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR) and an activist for political reform. He has also served as chair of Belize's Advisory Council on the Guatemalan Claim.)