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Apr 27, 2004

Redistricting plan looks unconstitutional

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Janelle Chanona

“The history of Belize shows that it is a rare day when both of the nation’s major political parties actually agree on something…but it does happen. One instance was when the members of the National Assembly succeeded in raising their own salaries. Another–far more costly in constitutional terms–is about to be slipped past an unsuspecting public. At least that’s the conclusion of News Director Stewart Krohn after nearly a month of investigation. Stewart, what exactly is going on here?”

Stewart Krohn

?Janelle, it?s one of these constitutional questions that have not been given a lot of publicity, but it?s an issue that?s really crucial to the future of democracy. And looking into it, the only conclusion that I can come to is that a major whap is being put on the Belizean public.?

Janelle Chanona

?But what exactly is the whap that involves the constitution??

Stewart Krohn

?Okay, let?s look at the section of the constitution that deals with the redistricting, because this about redistricting. If you look at section ninety, the constitution is fairly clear. It says: ?The election and Boundaries Commission, shall, after considering the distribution of the population throughout Belize, make proposals from time to time for dividing Belize into electoral divisions in such a way that (a) Each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons eligible to vote.? Now, despite the bit of a strange wording in that section A, the intent of the constitution is clear. Essentially what it is saying, as in almost every other democracy in the world, the principle of one man, one vote shall apply. Now the constitution doesn?t say how often you?re to go through this exercise, but to the government?s credit, I think it realised that such an exercise was long overdue and what it did was…well what the Election and Boundaries Commission did, as stated in the constitution, was to go about this exercise. And they did it by appointing a taskforce to at least lay the groundwork for the redistricting exercise.?

Janelle Chanona

?Who were the members of that taskforce??

Stewart Krohn

?The members of the taskforce were essentially three public officers, or people who work in the sphere of government. One is Gian Ghandi, who is the legal expert in the Ministry of Finance, the other is Noreen Fairweather of the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the third is Chief Elections Officer Myrtle Palacio. What they were asked to do is to make recommendations in respect of impediments in (A) adjusting existing boundaries, and (B) affecting existing number of constituencies. So basically, they were supposed to make recommendations on how many constituencies there ought to be and what the boundaries of those constituencies should be.?

Janelle Chanona

?And then they were supposed to give this back to the government, back to the commission??

Stewart Krohn

?Okay, they made a report and handed it over to the Election and Boundaries Commission.?

Janelle Chanona

?Remind us who is on that.?

Stewart Krohn

?The commission is a bi-partisan commission, three P.U.P.?s, two U.D.P.?s. Karl Menzies is the chairman, the P.U.P. members are Derek Courtenay and Samira Musa; the U.D.P. members are Herbert Panton and Anthony August. They did a very interesting thing in that after reading the report, they unanimously approved it. This is P.U.P. and U.D.P. They both loved the report so much that they approved it even without the sentence changed.?

Janelle Chanona

?Can?t that be called political progress, what is the problem??

Stewart Krohn

?It?s a nice thing to see Janelle, but the report that the taskforce came up with in my reading of the constitution, totally does not comply with what the constitution is saying. Instead of one man, one vote; or one woman, one vote, they have put in place a set of recommendations that totally skewer?s the voting power in the country in favour of Belize City constituencies to the peril or to the disadvantage of the district voters. The average size of the constituency according to the districts: Corozal you have four constituencies with four thousand four hundred and ninety-six voters average; Orange Walk has four constituencies averaging around four thousand eight hundred and five voters; Stann Creek, in two constituencies, averages four thousand nine hundred and eighty voters; Toledo, two constituencies, four thousand six hundred and three; Cayo, they have advised that we increase the number of constituencies to six, and even after that you come up with an average of around four thousand three hundred and ninety-six. All together you come up with a district average of four thousand five hundred and ninety-seven, that?s fine. The problem comes in in that they have recommended that the Belize District maintain its thirteen constituencies; eleven in the city, two more in the Belize rural. But the average in those constituencies is only three thousand four hundred and three, a huge differential from the district constituencies. My question is why??

Janelle Chanona

?But let me plug this in here now then, humanity dictates that people will move around, people will go to the city, population will move for one reason or another. Surely the commission told the taskforce that they would have a buffer zone or a tolerance level, was anything indicated in their mandate??

Stewart Krohn

?Well it?s interesting, if you read the press release that came out when the report came out?they issued not the report publicly, but a press release?the press release referred to a fifteen percent tolerance, which is fair enough because you can never get every constituency exactly even. And even after you do, because people are born and people die and people move out, it?s never going to stay the same. But what?s interesting is if you read the fine print of the report, the fifteen percent tolerance level only applies within each district, not across districts. So for example, all the six constituencies in the Cayo District will be within fifteen percent of each other, but that constraint does not apply to the Belize District as you compare it to the other districts, so it?s only within districts. The result that you get is that the Belize District voters have far more power. Let?s take the numbers, one hundred and twenty-six thousand, nine hundred and seventy-seven total voters, the Belize District voters number forty-four thousand, two hundred and thirty-three. That means that they number thirty-four point eight percent of all the voters in the country. So you would think that if they have thirty-four point eight percent of the voters, according to the constitution, they should have roughly thirty-four point eight percent of the seats. However, if you take thirteen divide by thirty-one, that is thirteen seats in the Belize District, you get a percentage of almost forty-two percent (forty-one point nine percent) of the seats. So they have a disproportionate amount of power. Actually, the average constituency in the Belize District has one thousand, one hundred and ninety-four fewer voters than the district constituencies, meaning it?s not fifteen percent smaller, it?s a full thirty-five percent smaller.?

Janelle Chanona

?But for those of us who maybe don?t even consider ourselves to be politically savvy, hasn?t things always been like that, isn?t the public gonna say so what??

Stewart Krohn

?The public may indeed say so what. There are two questions here. One is a practical questioning that if you live in the district other than the Belize District, let?s say you are from Belmopan and you vote in Belmopan, you have far less representation than people in Belize City proportional to population. Now this brings in the second problem, one might look at it and say, well that?s fine because Belize City is so important, and people shop there and a lot of commerce goes on there and people commute there. My answer to that will be, if that?s the case, if that?s how you want it then change the constitution. Other words, the crisis is that the constitution says one thing, but the taskforce is saying something else. The constitution is clear: one person, one vote. The report of the taskforce is saying nothing not even close to that.?

Janelle Chanona

?Now if the average Joe can look at this report, go into the number a little bit and come up with this assessment, why couldn?t the three taskforce members, who are intelligent public officers, and the commission not see that disparity and do something about it??

Stewart Krohn

?It gets a little tricky at this point, and I don?t want to cast aspersions at anyone who wrote the report. In fact, Noreen Fairweather was kind enough to speak extensively with me; Gian Ghandi spoke at length as well. Myrtle Palacio, the Chairman of the Election and Boundaries Department, adamantly said that she would not speak about the report. As far as she was concerned, the report belonged to the Election and Boundaries Commission, she had nothing to say. But Ghandi and Fairweather were quite willing to discuss it. Mrs. Fairweather seemed to be under the impression that the constitution provided criteria other than the one man, one vote principle and that these other criteria?although I couldn?t find them in the constitution?allowed the society to have a not quite even situation. Mr. Ghandi put it a little more specifically in that what he claimed was that when you read the constitution where it says: ?Each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons…?, he is saying that that phrase as nearly as may be is so inexact that it would allow for a lot of leeway, and basically he said that provision of the constitution would allow you to take into account a factor like tradition, that traditionally Belize is over-represented, therefore the constitution really doesn?t prohibit that. My reading is totally different, but at least he based it on what he interpreted it as a very wide breadth given to the constitution.?

Janelle Chanona

?And as you mentioned earlier, the commission unanimously accepted this report.?

Stewart Krohn

?Now this is another mystery. I spoke to commission chairman Karl Menzies several times over the last month. He passed me back to Myrtle Palacio, he said it was her report, she should talk about it; she said it?s his report, he should talk about it. Neither of them wanted to talk, Mr. Menzies pleaded that he was busy with B.E.L. annual general meeting, he was busy with H.R.C.U. and he did not want to talk about it. One person, who was willing to talk about it, was one of the U.D.P. representatives, and that was Herbert Panton. I do have a short clip of that interview…?

Herbert Panton, Member, Elections and Boundaries Commission

?It is not a special treatment for Belize City, but whatever tolerance level you come up with, Belize City having the number of constituencies that it does, will always–whether it?s five, ten, fifteen percent, whatever tolerance level you come up with?will always have a lower number than the districts.?

Stewart Krohn

?Why will it always have a lower number than the districts??

Herbert Panton

?Because you either work with the constituencies that you have or you would have to perhaps eliminate a constituency or two to get it up to the numbers.?

Stewart Krohn

?But why wouldn?t you eliminate two constituencies? For example, the taskforce recommended that you add two constituencies in Cayo because they had so many voters, why wouldn?t they just recommend to eliminate two constituencies in Belize City because it has so much fewer voters??

Herbert Panton

?Well it is far easier to add than it is to subtract. There are members of the House of Representatives and it would be quite a challenge indeed for us to tell the member for Fort George or the member for Pickstock or one of the small constituencies you will have to stop and you won?t have a constituency anymore.?

Janelle Chanona

?Feedback, response…?

Stewart Krohn

?It?s interesting Janelle, because if you look practically at what would happen if you took away two constituencies in Belize City, which really, looking at the numbers there is no way to avoid it. If you are going to do this thing straight, according to the constitution Belize City would have to lose two constituencies; that would put it back in line. The most likely outcome would be is you?d lose one on the north side, which means you probably have to combine at least major portions of Pickstock and Fort George, so either the P.M. or Godfrey Smith has to find a new constituency, and if you did it on the south side, you?d probably wind up combining major parts of Mesop and Queen?s Square, which means either two veteran stalwarts with safe seats like Mr. Finnegan and Mr. Barrow, one of those two would have to go looking for a new seat. I think in the end both parties decided this is just too much trouble, it puts us in too much jeopardy, let?s let sleeping dogs lie and let?s get this thing passed by the House of Representatives.?

Janelle Chanona

?So there is technically no recourse for let?s say a voter from Cayo North to anybody in the districts, there?s no recourse here??

Stewart Krohn

?Well, there are two things that could happen. One is, as Mr. Ghandi told me this morning, you could always change it. Right now the taskforce has made it?s report, the commission has accepted the report unanimously, and the commission is about to empanel a new taskforce to get on with the actually task of carving up the constituencies and making the constituencies within each district more or less roughly equal within fifteen percent. After that is done, the commission, presumably after it unanimously approves that report, it will then send a package of legislation for consideration by the National Assembly. They will debate it, vote on it, and then it will become law. So if you don?t like the smell of this thing, at this point, theoretically if you complain enough, the Election and Boundaries Commission might be forced to go back and re-commission an original taskforce, or when the legislation gets to the National Assembly you can try and influence the voting in the National Assembly, particularly in the Senate where you do have some men and women of conscience who might make a fuss. And perhaps even in the House of Representatives there might be some backbenchers who don?t really like this idea too much. After that, presumably, if a citizen wanted to challenge it, as you say a citizen from the district who is being short-changed, a constitutional motion could be made in the Supreme Court. Now as you know, Mr. Barrow is fond of making constitutional motions; this is one though I don?t think you will find him representing and aggrieved voter in the district.?

Janelle Chanona

?It?s all very interesting, thank you Stewart.?

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