By Kathleen Castillo
Edited by Brie Cokos
Turn on the television these days and talk of potential war in the Middle East, strikes in Venezuela, and nightclub tragedies in the US flood the screen. But, here in Belize, the media houses a different spectrum of breaking news - Elections on March 5th, 2003.
The thought of elections in a developing country might stir images of political unrest to those in the older established nations of Central and South America. In Belize, the political trends follow a different path-led by and for the people. As they seem to do with so many other issues, Belizeans take the reins of democracy in their own hands and make the candidates work and pay for the opportunity to represent them in government.
A former British colony, Belize acquired internal self-government in 1964, with full independence a mere twenty-one years ago. Under the parliamentary system of government, general elections are held a minimum of every five years. Whichever party wins the majority of seats in the twenty-nine constituencies countrywide has the opportunity to appoint the Prime Minister from within their pool of elected officials. Although Belize traditionally hosts a two party system, the elections this year have their share of independents and even a new third party, "We the People". The two major parties are the People's United Party (PUP), led by the current Prime Minister Said Musa, and the United Democratic Party (UDP), under the leadership of Dean Barrow. Francis Gegg heads We the People.
Every corner of the country radiates with the energy of the impending elections. Every telephone pole, street and roadside is awash in a sea of red (UDP) and blue (PUP), with the occasional yellow and green of We the People. All candidates know Belize's diverse history very well and remain cautious in these final days before the election. In the four previous elections since independence, the government has seesawed between parties: 1984, the UDP under Manuel Esquivel, 1988 the PUP under George Price, 1993, the UDP under Manual Esquivel, and 1998, the PUP under Said Musa again.
All parties actively reach out to the 117,415+ voters who have shown exceptional voter turnouts in the past (74.9%!). In typical pre-election motivation, streets are cleaned, paved and electrified, housing projects are completed, computers are popping up in schools, and parks are opening. Parties habitually save the best for last in a mad dash to "re-distribute" wealth. Weekly public meetings with loud speakers and a trail of candidates recounting accomplishments, outlining future plans, and "exposing" the weaknesses or scandals of the opposition bellow from the street side in all cities, towns and villages. That's the traditional Belizean way of educating the voters. However, in this election, modern technology and the media have come to the forefront - black and white flyers, 4-color brochures, Red or Blue t-shirts, radio ads, television and newspaper ads, press conferences, and color coordinated rallies have greatly assisted the traditional methods of propaganda.
Aside from the usual media hype, an incredible passion for music distinguishes Caribbean elections from all others. Messages blare from the radio with surprisingly catchy beats at regular intervals with messages of praise and criticism. Not only does each party have a song, but almost every candidate has commissioned a tune and in as many as four different languages, English, Spanish and Garifuna and Maya. The PUP "welcomes you to the party" and reminds you "there is no turning back", while the UDP encourages you to "get it right". The tunes are repeated so often that even diehard loyalists have been seen singing along and "winding their waists" to the songs of the opposition! The radio stations play the songs all day and make sure the required disclaimer "The preceding was a paid political announcement" follows.
On March 5th, the PUP hopes to make history and win a second term. Either way, Belize will break new barriers in the political process this year: for the first time, the country will be holding dual elections in twenty-one of the twenty-nine constituencies. According to the recently revised Town Council ACT, the Town Council elections must be held on March 5th. The General Elections must be held by August 2003. The current government has called these early, on the same day as the town elections. Voters will go into the polls and vote for their area representative to determine the government, then in twenty-one constituencies repeat the process and vote for their Town or City councils.
Because Belize does not employ a mechanized voting system, the threat of distorted "chads" or computer glitches does not exist. Voters registered by Feb. 10th will walk into the polling station and identify themselves with a voter's card or other ID. When the local representatives from each contesting party verify the name on the voter lists, the returning officer initials the back of the ballot and hands it to the voter who enters a private booth to make the requisite X. The party color is right beside the candidate's name to help keep the process straightforward. At the end of the day, the ballot boxes are transferred to the counting station where the long counting process begins. Supporters stay glued to the radio all night for updates and results. Some smaller constituencies like the Pickstock division in Belize City complete their ballot counting in a matter of hours, while areas dotted with remote villages like Toledo in southern Belize may not even start the counting process until late in the evening as they wait for all the ballot boxes to arrive.
In a country of 250,000, even if you aren't openly in support of a particular party, inferences are drawn from the company you keep, your family history, or an incident or comment you may or may not remember. In the days leading up to the election, even the color of your clothes can indicate where you will cast your vote. For some, the stakes are high and the intensity, negativity and campaign budgets are commensurate. Although a few signs may be defaced and individuals slandered, Belizeans respect the right to differ and appreciate the ability to voice their opinions in a free country. Of course, we have to live, work and play together after this election and until the next!
Both sides highlight the same predominant issues: housing, health, education, youth, women and economic development. Arguments over who is more capable and most trustworthy resound from the street rallies. The People's United Party has been around longest and it possesses the most political experience. However, with 40% of the population under the age of twenty-five, the opportunity for young people to advance to senior positions in business and government is greater than in most other countries. The UDP has several new candidates reflecting this sense of renewal and may capitalize on the sense of transition. We the People party has eleven candidates-not enough to make a majority if they win all their seats, but ten other independent candidate names can be found on the ballot as well. In addition, five female candidates will be running in the General elections. With nomination fees structured as follows, cost is definitely not the limiting factor in entering the race:
$200 BZ -per candidate in the general election
$50 BZ - per candidate in a City Council election
$25 BZ - per candidate in a Town Council election
I am a Belizean and a registered voter. I know who I will vote for and why. Imperfect as the system may be, I know how many people worldwide have given their lives for this right. This process invigorates me and motivates me to remind anyone who will listen that they can make a difference and should vote on March 5th. In Belize we are lucky, our voter turnout rate shows that we know our power and will exercise it. Belize enjoys a rare freedom: the energy of the times touches each district and all people regardless of race, sex, or creed. Whatever the outcome of this election, the freedom will remain... just like the music, it is what makes Belize.
Special Thanks to:
Belize Elections & Boundaries Department
Belizean Journeys - Proud and Strong and 21
Government of Belize
People's United Party
United Democratic Party
Images Courtesy of:
Image of Dean Barrow courtesy of Tanya Barrow (www.udp.org.bz)