Editorial in Amandala:

National municipal elections in Belize are four months away, but it is as if the race is really right around the corner. In Belize, the Christmas and New Year’s holidays dominate the November and December months after Garifuna Settlement Day, and what basically happens in January and February is that roots people have to fight to recover from the financial excesses of the holidays. March 2018, in a sense, is right around the corner.

The ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) presently controls 62 of the 67 municipal seats nationwide, and they should be flush with all kinds of campaign cash for the March 2018 elections. But, several serious developments have taken place in Belize since the last national municipal elections in March of 2015, the most serious of those developments being, we think, the country’s sinking deeper and deeper into debt, with unemployment, already unacceptably high, increasing exponentially as more and more businesses have shut down. The implications for crime and violence have been obvious.

With UDP Leader, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, supposedly poised to turn over leadership of the ruling party to Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Patrick Faber, whenever Mr. Barrow so decides, the UDP is more divided at the highest levels than it has been since coming to power in February of 2008. The reason is that former Deputy Prime Minister, Gaspar Vega (Orange Walk North), the most powerful man next to Mr. Barrow in the ruling party, along with most of the Barrow Cabinet supported National Security Minister, John Saldivar (Belmopan), over Faber in the UDP’s Deputy Leader convention. Vega and his faction are still very much opposed to Patrick.

At the same time, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) is more united than it has been since their February 2008 general election defeat, because PUP Leader, Hon. John Briceño (Orange Walk Central), who won PUP leadership conventions in March of 2008 and January of 2015, is stronger in the PUP than he has ever been, and that strength will carry over into the national municipal elections.

Apart from Belize’s economic woes after the Petrocaribe loan money ran out after the November 2015 general election, and the division inside the UDP leadership, there has been the matter of UDP government corruption and cover ups, which kept getting worse and worse until the teachers of Belize took to the streets in October of last year. The government was weak enough, or the teachers were strong enough, or both, so that Prime Minister Barrow had to agree to eight Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) demands before the teachers would call off the strike.

At the time of the BNTU strike, the PUP was still struggling internally with the fact that the Said Musa/Ralph Fonseca faction was not on board with the Briceño leadership, but that issue was resolved, for all practical purposes and certainly until March of 2018, in the middle of last month when the uncertain Kareem Musa leadership challenge fizzled.

It is for sure that the PUP will go all out later this month at their so-called Unity Convention, a national convention mandated every two years by the party constitution, to make a splash bigger than any they have made since losing power nine and a half years ago. In fact, the PUP has lost three general elections, four national municipal elections, and several bye-elections since September of 2003. The PUP has won absolutely nothing since they won the March 2003 general election.

The UDP has solid reasons to be confident going into next March’s electoral contest. Their constituency machines are on a fourteen-year winning streak, and money is not a UDP problem. One UDP problem, however, is the law of diminishing returns. The UDP has been successfully frightening the Belizean electorate with the Said and Ralph bogeymen for almost a decade, but now they have their own bogeymen, led by the smiling Gapi Vega. The fact that John Briceño has withstood the second round of Said/Ralph onslaughts (remember the Said/Ralph National Perspective newspaper had pressured Johnny into resigning PUP leadership in October of 2011, after his first leadership convention victory two and a half years earlier) compounds the UDP problem, to repeat, because the PUP is finally unified.

In Belize City, which is the nation’s media capital, national issues often play a substantial role in municipal elections. The Guatemalan claim to Belize, and the UDP’s push to have Belize join Guatemala at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration, constitute a national issue which will alienate a quantum of voters, and some of these voters may even be traditionally UDP (originally National Independence Party/NIP) adherents.

Overall, in March next year Belizean voters will have a pretty clear choice between the UDP and the PUP, because the UDP has made it clear that they will be campaigning primarily on the strength of all the infrastructure projects they have completed. The PUP is arguing that the masses of the Belizean people have been neglected, especially where the windfall Petrocaribe money was concerned.

The Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) matter is another big deal. Mr. Barrow received a lot of national support when he nationalized BTL in 2009, because Lord Michael Ashcroft’s BTL was abusive in its telephone rates while also refusing to pay government taxes. A lot of litigation ensued, but the Government and people of Belize ended up losing, because we ended up paying Ashcroft five times what the company is worth, while Ashcroft had created a second telephone company, Speednet/Smart, which is now dominating the wireless sector of Belize’s telecommunications business with state-of-the-art technology.

When he began to fight the Lord in 2009, the Lord being a known Goliath on the local scene, Mr. Barrow did not put on a David face. He was unable to control his ego, so that he gave Belizeans the impression that he and his attorneys, close family members, had everything under control, and that it was only a matter of time before he conquered the great Lord Ashcroft. Meanwhile, he put his younger, unqualified son in charge of BTL, and that did not work out swimmingly. Belize has now had to bring in a foreigner to run BTL who is being paid three-quarter million dollars a year. Where the supposed fight between Prime Minister Barrow and Lord Michael Ashcroft was concerned, there are now more questions than answers. Were these two ever as hostile to each other as Mr. Barrow, on his part, always portrayed himself to be? Did Ashcroft make a fool of Mr. Barrow, with the Belizean people now having to pay for the Prime Minister’s frolics?

William Danny Mason, Gapi Vega, Castro and his sons, the ICJ, BTL, and fat cats here and fat cats there: we didn’t even mention Elvin Penner, ComPol Whylie, the GSU, the MCC Grounds, the strange Marion Jones Sporting Complex, and so on.

The likelihood is great that who wins next March will win in 2020. It is a local election with national issues. Belizeans are fortunate that we have a vote to express our opinions. Let us be serious, sober, and mature.

Amandala