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Jan 7, 2003

Early elections? The case for and against

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Depending on which side of the political fence you’re on, the last four years and four months have either flown by or moved painfully slowly. And while according to law, the next general election is not absolutely due until around the end of November–approximately five years and three months from the last election–word on the street is that it will come sooner–perhaps much sooner.

Those viewers waiting to hear that date announced by me in the next few minutes will be sadly disappointed. But what I can say is that while rumours of an early election have been around for months, there are signs that the possibility is not far fetched. In case you haven’t noticed, the amount of political ads in the print and electronic media has risen to a level that would once have been considered outrageous. Elections in Belize, it seems, like Christmas, bring their own money.

Like the trade in advertisements, the movement of the individual candidates has also been impressive. The Prime Minister is in the middle of a nationwide tour that is nothing less than punishing. The Leader of the Opposition has abandoned his law practice to hit the campaign trail full time. Sidewalk spectators see the signs everywhere…and speaking of signs, the countdown atop U.D.P. headquarters in Belize City was yesterday reduced to a mere thirty-three days. While party officials attribute the move to a prank by Yellowman, the number did coincide with the thinking of a significant section of the electorate. And the politicians are paying attention. U.D.P. Chairman Doug Singh says that he’s ready for anything.

Dough Singh, Chairman, United Democratic Party

“We’ve always anticipated an early election, so we’ve put ourselves in a position to gear up for early elections, so I don’t think we’ll be caught unexpectedly. You might recall though that in 1993 when the government called the election one year and three months early, it was with an expectation to catch their opposition unprepared, and they did so and that still did not materialise in victory for the People’s United Party.”

Janelle Chanona

“Now would it be detrimental at all for them to call the elections before City Council, the day of City Council, or right after City Council elections?”

Dough Singh

“I don’t know, I’m not a political pundit in the context of making assumptions. The Prime Minister is the only person at the end of the day who has to make that decision, and we are prepared nonetheless. I would think that there might be some argument, if you’re gonna have an election fairly early, that you might want to combine it with a City Council election because of the cost and the administration of doing so. Of course, that has its downside also. We’ve heard all kinds of rumours and there are some indicators that seem to want to substantiate some of those rumours; the volume of advertisement that is being done. There are some people in the upper hierarchy of the party that seems to, either from conversations with people who make the decisions, indicate that in fact an early election may be a reality. Practical measures would say maybe the government would wait until after local government elections because then they’d have an indication, some kind of litmus test as to what their popularity is. However, conventional wisdom is not always the way things actually carry out at the end of the day.”

But what day are we talking about? Several pundits have pointed to February nineteenth. Their reasoning is that a House meeting will be held on January seventeenth at which time the Prime Minister will give the required thirty day notice. February nineteenth would be the first Wednesday–the traditional day for elections–following the thirty day campaign period.

While there is nothing wrong with this theory, it does make some assumptions that are not necessarily true. The fact is that the House of Representatives does not have to be the place where elections are announced. That process takes place whenever the Prime Minister calls on the Governor General and asks him to dissolve the legislature. At that time, he also fixes a date for the election–a date which can be no sooner than thirty days, but can be longer if the P.M. so desires.

What would be the Prime Minister’s reasons for calling an early election? Of course only he knows for sure, but some possible benefits are not hard to figure out.

In the first place, the shorter the campaign, the less money it costs. Elections are tremendously expensive affairs these days and virtually every candidate–not to mention their parties–would be happy to avoid the crippling costs of a long campaign.

Another reason for the government to call an early election is to catch the Opposition unprepared. Some U.D.P. candidates have been only recently chosen, and the P.U.P. may feel that an early election will favour their better known incumbents.

Other reasons are more grounded in reality. If, for example, the government thinks that a coming war in Iraq will hurt the economy, or a new budget will inevitably bring austerity measures, it would be smarter to hold the election sooner rather than later.

Similarly, if voters have been given all the jobs, houses, loans and other benefits that government has to offer–and there’s nothing more left to give–better to vote early while the pleasant memories are still fresh.

But while all these may be good reasons to hold an early election, there is just as much logic to wait.

For the P.U.P., early elections have a bad history. The last time they tried it, in 1993, they were beaten. At the time, many angry party stalwarts said “never again!” What they are saying now, is not known.

Another strong argument against an early election is the motto that the P.U.P. used when it was last in opposition. That is: “Five years is five years.” Belizeans are essentially conservative and don’t like to overthrow certain traditions. Whether a five-year term of government is among those traditions worth saving is not exactly clear.

As for the argument that an early election would save money, it could more cogently be argued that a longer campaign would favour the incumbent. Conventional wisdom dictates that the P.U.P. has a large war chest, and another eight months of campaigning could not be matched by the less well endowed Opposition. In short, the strategy is to make the U.D.P. bleed to death financially.

And finally, the argument that an uncertain future favours an early poll can just as easily be turned around. By August, it could be argued, a quick U.S. victory in Iraq will bring much lower fuel prices and a buoyant world economy that would increase tourism and new investment in Belize–not exactly a bad situation on election eve.

So where do we stand? Our sympathies go out to Prime Minister Musa because the decision is his, and his alone. And that’s not all. Even if he chooses to go early, he still must decide whether to pick a date before the March fifth municipal elections, after the municipal vote, or on that same date, making for one big winner-take-all election day fiesta.

Good luck, P.M., just remember that when you make your decision, let us be the first to know.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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