“Elections are won chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody” – Franklin Pierce Adams
“No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than in the fighting of elections” – Winston Churchill
“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves elected into office should on no account be allowed to do the job” – Douglas Adams
It’s all over. The dust has settled, the votes have been counted, and the polling booths taken down. The hands have been shaken, the babies kissed, the parties thrown, and the palms greased. Last week’s national and municipal elections resulted in victory for the incumbent United Democratic Party (UDP) and current Prime Minister Dean Barrow. But it was a narrow victory – instead of the landslide they won at the last election in 2008 (when they beat the People’s United Party [PUP] by a large majority), this time they scraped by, winning 17 of the 31 seats and 50% of the votes. The PUP won the remaining 14 seats and got 48% of the votes. The independent candidates and smaller parties split the remaining 2% of the votes (which, in a country with Belize’s population, are very small numbers – each party would’ve had about 800 people vote for them at the most!). And none of them won any seats in Parliament (so it’s business as usual, with the two main parties occupying the House).
But there was a strong showing for the PUP, with them gaining eight seats compared to the last election. So a 25 – 6 advantage to the UDP in 2008 is now reduced to 17 – 14. It seems the UDP made a smart move by calling the election one year early – in another year’s time they may have had an even bigger fight on their hands, with potentially more voters against them and the opposition even stronger.
And with a national debt of US$1 billion (that’s 80% of the country’s GDP, or US$3,000 per person), over a third of the population living in poverty, 20% unemployment, a stalled economy, and a skyrocketing murder rate, they’ve certainly got their work cut out.
To be fair to the UDP, since they’ve been in power they’ve not done too many bad things, or made too many bad decisions that would lead to people voting against them en masse. They’ve just not done that many good things either! They’ve not massively added to the national debt by borrowing heavily (unlike their predecessors the PUP), they’ve nationalised the utilities (albeit in a rather clumsy and overly authoritarian way), and they’ve weathered the worldwide financial storm relatively peacefully. But their pushing through of the 9th amendment, and their intention to implement 90-day preventative detention and trial without jury hasn’t exactly endeared them to many people. And they don’t seem to have made much headway tackling poverty or crime (unless you count bribing gang members to not attack each other!), or increased employment, or got the economy moving. Life over the last four years hasn’t changed that much for most locals – it’s still difficult, expensive, uncertain, and sometimes dangerous.
Part of the problem with politics (and elections) here is that no-one really seems to know what the parties stand for – according to their websites, the UDP is a centre-right, conservative party, and the PUP is a centre-left, Christian democratic one. But both parties are so close to the centre, in terms of both political position and ideology, that most of the time it’s hard to tell the difference – so there are no real opposing political dimensions, like left and right, Democrat and Republican, Labour and Tory (which is unusual in a country that has a two-party system). Plus, each party makes decisions that (to me at least) seem to go against their political positions and ideologies – it was the PUP that sold off the nation’s utilities to foreign investors, and the UDP that re-nationalised them. The charitably-minded could argue that each party was doing whatever was best for the country at the time, the more cynical might suggest it was a case of political expediency designed to increase money or votes…
So instead of left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, socialist vs. capitalist, it’s PUP vs. UDP, and regardless of what one party says or does, you can be sure that the other party will oppose it. And for the voters, regardless of what each party may say or do, regardless of how much they may change their position, some people will always be PUP or UDP (so they don’t even need to think when they vote, a state of affairs that doesn’t exactly help the democratic process). Politics here is much less turbulent or bloody than in other parts of Central America (there’s never been any coups or civil wars or government-sponsored killings, and the elections are regular and peaceful), but as well as more stability, there seems to be more apathy and passivity too – people seem to have been conditioned to expect that the government will do whatever it wants and that there’s nothing the average person can do about it. As politicians of both parties have mastered the art of nepotism, cronyism, and subtle thievery, locals have mastered the art of quietly accepting it. The population is so small, so spread-out, so diverse, and so relaxed (or apathetic/passive – delete as appropriate) that any kind of organised movement is rare. Don’t be expecting any Arab Spring-style revolutions here!
Belize is more like a village than a country – it has one of the world’s smallest populations, and everyone knows everyone else and their business. Even if you don’t openly support a particular party, inferences are made from your friends, your family, or your employer (in the days leading up to the election, even the colour of your clothes can indicate to some people how you will vote!). And the more well-known you and your family are, the more likely your political colours will have been nailed to the mast. There are a number of prominent families here and everybody knows whether they’re PUP or UDP, because they’ve been that way for years. There’s a Creole saying that sums up Belizean politics (and the rest of Belizean life, for that matter): ‘Blood falla vein.’ Blood follows the vein. Relatives (and by extension friends and colleagues) look out for each other.
It’s certainly true at election time. The PUP won the 1998 election by overwhelming the UDP with buckets of campaign money. And this year, most people I spoke to were confident the UDP would win, if only for the reason that it has more money than anybody else does right now. Incredibly, Belize has no campaign finance laws, so nobody knows exactly where all this money comes from, but it’s spent with gusto, with politicians doling out everything from hams to washing machines to land to cash to their constituents.
Obviously, this doesn’t exactly help democracy in the country either – if you’re voting for the party who gives you something (or who gives you the most), you’re not voting for who you think will actually improve the country (you’re not voting based on any thought at all), and while you may make some small short-term gain, you may ultimately end up with a larger long-term loss. And if you don’t get something from either party, you just don’t vote – there have been stories of people who expected (or were promised) money from one of the parties, but didn’t get any, and on election day, with no party to offer them a sweet enough reason to vote, they didn’t.
Despite the diversity of Belizean society, ethnic and religious differences rarely enter into politics. There are no parties based on ethnic identity, and no single ethnic group has ever dominated the PUP or the UDP. Nevertheless, there is some ethnic tension between Creoles and Mestizos. The Creoles of Belize City and the coast adopted British culture, language and religion, giving them a distinctly Caribbean outlook. Mestizos share an ethnic, linguistic and religious identity with the peoples of Central America. And recent Central American immigration has tipped the balance towards bilingual people (which many Mestizos are) and away from monolingual Creoles, with the parties seemingly happy to do whatever’s necessary to gain the newcomer’s votes, including promising them land and paying for their citizenship! Most are farm workers who are readily absorbed into the agricultural sector, but these immigrants may be carrying the seeds of future political and ethnic tensions by contributing to changes in the country’s makeup.
Another problem for Belizean politics is the lack of independent bodies – although on paper organisations like the Central Bank and the Ombudsman are independent of the government, in practice everything from banks and law firms to universities and utilities are staffed by people with allegiance to one party or the other, often hired when their party gains power and fired as soon as the other party is elected (so if the PUP had won the election, we probably would’ve seen a raft of high-ranking people, from businessmen to lawyers to teachers, suddenly out of their jobs, or unable to get the job that they would’ve got in the previous administration). Because of the partisan nature of the country’s politics (combined with the gossipy, small-town atmosphere), very few organisations are truly independent, and very few people willing to take a stand (partly due to Belizean culture and partly due to genuine fear of the consequences). Sometimes Belize feels less like a democracy and more like a plutarchy, ruled by a small group of powerful, wealthy families and their friends and associates, and run on money, influence and family ties.
Communists would probably say that Belize’s problems are the same as any other democracy, that they’re the result of the inherently unfair capitalist system, and that the only way to solve them is for the oppressed proletariat to rise up in a workers’ revolution. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far (democracy certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s better than most of the alternatives – just ask the average Cuban, Iranian, or Burmese). Belize’s problems aren’t so much due to the systems it has, but due to the implementation of those systems, by people who don’t have the experience to run things properly, or the morality to run them correctly.
This isn’t just Belize – none of this is at all unusual in the developing world, or in countries that were previously colonies of European powers. Belizeans had no say in running things from the time the first British loggers came ashore in the 17th century, right up to self-government in 1964. The country finally got full independence in 1981 – people own cars that are older than Belize! Given that it’s had over 300 years of slavery, colonialisation, and submission, followed by 30 years of independence, it’s not surprising that the country is still on the road to autonomy, prosperity and democracy.
But it can be done – India has shown that you can have a democracy in a country of vast population and mind-boggling diversity. Botswana is another former British colony that’s one of Africa’s few success stories. And Malaysia has gone from rural backwater to one of the richest countries in South-East Asia. And all in less than 70 years.
Belize has actually got its colonial history going for it, for once. Statistically, former British colonies tend to be more democratic and stable than those of other European powers, such as France and Spain. And the areas that have been most democratic are the Pacific and the Caribbean (which Belize can be included in, for the sake of this argument). These are locations where colonial influence was longer and more pervasive than in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In fact, democracy tends to be strongest in countries where British colonialism was strongest. Studies have shown that the longer a society was colonised by the Brits and the more widespread the use of English, the more democratic it is. Compared to other colonisers, the Brits ended slavery earlier, and devolved power to local institutions more gradually (in the case of Belize it had to, if it had done it quickly and then left, the pesky Guatemalans would’ve invaded!).
So as bad as the present may be, I think the future is brighter. So long as the country keeps growing economically, and the locals’ lives improve as a result, that is. But Belizean politicians need to realise (or be forced to realise) that governing a country involves listening to the people as much as talking to them, that rules only work if they’re followed by everyone, and that if they do the right things, everyone can benefit. And Belizean people need to realise that, like any democracy, the power to change things is in their hands.