“Politics is a dirty business” – Richard Nixon
“Politics isn’t dirty, it’s the politicians that are” – Anon
“’Politics’ is made up of two words – ‘poli’, which is Greek for many, and ‘tics’, which are blood-sucking insects” – Gore Vidal
It’s election time in Belize. Prime Minister Dean Barrow suddenly and unexpectedly announced it last month. Normally, elections are held every five years (as that’s the maximum term a governing party is elected to), and the last election was in 2008, so everyone was expecting the next one to be next year. But on March 7th Belizeans will be going to the polls.
I’m not sure exactly why Barrow is calling it a year early (his official reason is that municipal elections are on the same day, and having both together will save money; and his speech was full of the usual political platitudes about serving the people and needing their permission to continue the good work), but most people believe he did it for the same reason that any politician calls an early election – because his opponents are weaker than they probably will be in the future, so his chance of winning is better now than later.
Whatever the reason, the news has the country gripped by election fever, and the whole thing reminds me once again that politics in Belize is a strange business.
In theory, the country follows the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, like its former colonial master Britain and many other Commonwealth countries. It’s also a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth as head of state and the Prime Minister as head of government. It has a multi-party system, and all the usual constitutional safeguards – freedom of speech, press, worship, etc. That’s in theory.
In practice, it’s a bit different. There’s two main parties, the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and the opposition People’s United Party (PUP). There are also a host of smaller independent parties, but none of these has ever won a significant number of votes or seats, and the UDP and PUP dominate the country, normally accounting for over 95% of the votes.
The PUP have received the most votes in four of the six elections since Independence in 1981, and the UDP have got the most votes in the other two (although the UDP got more seats in 1993, despite getting less votes, so they won that year [I don’t understand it either]. So it’s 3 – 3 in terms of who’s been running the country).
Power swings between PUP and UDP, depending on how p!ssed off Belizeans get with whoever’s in charge – after ten years of PUP (by the end of which it was being accused of widespread corruption and mismanagement of public finds), the UDP came to power in 2008. And in keeping with the general principle that most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody (and the Belizean principle that you can’t trust any politician, especially when they’ve been in power for a while), there’s talk that the PUP might give the UDP a run for its money in March.
But the PUP has had three different leaders since 2008, so there are some internal problems that the UDP are probably hoping to take advantage of.
Even more unfortunately for the PUP, it’s only been four years since they were last in power, and many Belizeans still remember the accusations of corruption that dogged the party in its later years (culminating in some very un-Belizean protests and civil unrest in 2005).
The PUP have been heavily financed in the past by UK Conservative Party life peer, international businessman, non-payer of UK taxes, and all-round rich scumbag Lord Michael Ashcroft, a man whose business ethics make Gordon Gekko look like Mother Teresa, and who has his sticky fingers (or should that be blood-sucking tentacles?) in more pies than a bakery. Ashcroft spent his childhood in Belize and has dual citizenship (although he’s never here, he just uses Belize as an offshore tax haven for his business empire), and for many years used his non-domiciled status to evade paying UK taxes on his overseas earnings while simultaneously funding the Conservative Party. Through various shell and holding companies he owns (or has controlling interests in) the country’s biggest bank, Belize City’s port, and a TV station. And he previously owned both of the country’s two telecoms providers!
Along with the accusations of corruption, Ashcroft is one of the main problems for the PUP – many Belizeans view, with deep suspicion, their relationship with a man whose net worth is more than the GDP of the entire country, a man whose funding of political parties around the world (not just the UK and Belize, but also Australia) is done to influence policies in those countries to his advantage, and man whose monopolies and their excessively high prices have made him and his shareholders millions, in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.
Probably the most shocking of all Ashcroft’s business deals is the secret ‘accommodation agreement’ Belize Telemedia (BTL) made with the PUP in 2005, which guaranteed the government would make up any shortfall if the company failed to achieve a minimum 15% return on its investments. When the UDP took office in 2008 they tried to get the accommodation agreement overturned, as it was signed by a previous administration, and they didn’t agree with it or want to pay for it. That case ping-ponged through the courts until early 2009, where BTL (and their large team of expensive lawyers) won, and the government was ordered to pay them BZ$41 million.
This appears to have been the last straw for Barrow and the UDP, and in late 2009 they nationalised BTL. The only problem with the nationalisation is that it was deemed unconstitutional. Throughout 2010 Barrow appealed to the Caribbean Court of Justice, and he attempted to get a new, constitution-friendly nationalisation approved, but neither of those worked, so last year he went down the other route and changed the constitution instead. If you can’t get what you want legally, just change the law!
Although insisting that the change is a ‘special solution to a special case’, the new constitution includes measures to ensure that all public utilities remain under the government’s control (i.e. to make all nationalisations unchallengeable), and it now also allows the government to make any new changes to it without being challenged. The 9th amendment means that, whatever law the government wants to pass, it can, without any legal challenge.
Barrow (a former lawyer) has made several constitutional changes in the past, but, despite most Belizeans being in favour of his re-nationalising of utilities (I also think it’s a good thing in principle), some Belizeans are also worried that his recent amendment is the first steps to becoming some kind of dictatorial ‘supreme leader’ – and that’s putting them off from voting from him. (The re-nationalisations also included the national electricity supplier, which [before the government stepped in last year] was so close to bankruptcy that it could no longer afford to pay its main supplier [Belize has no large-scale power generation, so they get most of their electricity from Mexico], and the country was told to expect blackouts if the Mexicans cut us off!).
The other thing that the UDP are coming under fire for is offshore drilling – last year, they secretly sold various oil exploration companies parcels of land around the country, some of which are located on the Barrier Reef. A coalition of NGOs, worried by the possibility of damage to the reef (and to the livelihoods of the 20% of Belizeans who depend on it [mainly in tourism and fishing]) have managed to convince the government to hold a referendum, after gathering 20,000 signatures calling for one (despite the UDP initially trying to wriggle their way of it by disqualifying 8,000 of the signatures). That vote is tomorrow, one week before the election.
Whichever party you vote for, there’s a good chance some ministers will be feathering their own nests while in office – like many developing countries and young democracies, Belize has both the endemic poverty that encourages corruption, and the lack of proper monitoring and evaluation to find out about it. And when everyone in public life seems to be doing it (to one degree or another), there’s little accountability for it and little political will to stop it.
Belize isn’t the most corrupt country in the world (in 2009 Transparency International ranked Belize 111 out of 180, with a score of 3 out of 10 [they didn’t rank or score Belize at all in the last two years, as the government didn’t provide the necessary information!]). But it has its own brands of crony capitalism, favouritism, and nepotism, with an unhealthily close relationship between government and business, unknown numbers of undisclosed ‘donations’ and ‘favours’, and plenty of self-serving friendships and family ties (in this case it doesn’t help that Belize is such a tiny country with such a small population that everyone knows almost everyone else, or is related to almost everyone else [by birth or marriage]).
So who to vote for? There are some people who are UDP or PUP, and will vote that way every election. There are some who are, how shall I put it, ‘encouraged’ to vote one way or another by their local representatives (immigrants from other Central American countries get their Belizean citizenship paid for by their local MPs, gang leaders in Belize City are paid to get their gang members to vote for a particular person, parties are thrown, food and drink is given away, and money generally splashed around). There are some who will vote for the opposition party, because they’ve had enough of the current one. And there are a few who vote for one of the independents or don’t vote at all. And, in keeping with the choosing of one necessary evil over another and the resultant enforcing of the will of the majority over the minority that we call democracy (I’m not being anti-democratic, I’m making political satire!), we’ll all find out next Thursday.
Footnote – one person who probably won’t be voting is Shyne (born Jamal Barrow), a Belizean rapper who’s also the illegitimate son of the Prime Minister. In 1999 he was in a New York nightclub with Jennifer Lopez and Sean Combs (or Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or Diddy, or whatever that preening tosser calls himself these days), when he was involved in a shooting, for which he was convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison for ten years, just as his music career was getting underway. He was released in 2009 and deported back to Belize, where he was given the fancy-sounding-but-empty title ‘Belizean Music Ambassador’ and played a few disappointing gigs. And now, bizarrely, he’s become an Orthodox Jew, changed his name to Moses Levi, and moved to Jerusalem! I told you it was a strange business…