A Rough Guide to the 2020 Belize Election

Nov 11, 2020

The 2020 Belize election gets underway on November 11, where Belizeans go to the polls to select a new government for the next five years. Here we try to create a guide to the proceedings for the uninitiated.

First off, a disclaimer. Living in Costa Rica and knowing nothing of politics in Belize, I’m one of the uninitiated. For that reason, this article is more about pointing people in the direction of experts (like the excellent Brent’s Two Cents podcast), rather than opining myself.  Think of this as a rough guide and nothing more.

How does the general election work in Belize?

Belize operates a “Westminster-style”, first-past-the-post system. For those who don’t know, “Westminster-style” means doing it the way they do in the UK. First-past-the-post means the first party to get a majority of seats wins.

People vote for their area representative in the constituency where they live. The elected area representative wins a seat in the 31-seat chamber House of Representatives. The party with most seats in the chamber wins the election and can form a government.

As the House of Representatives has 31 seats, the winner of the election is the first party to get a majority of those seats. That’s 16.

Unlike presidential elections, the voter elects their area representative, not the future prime minister. The prime minister is the head of the party with the majority (at least 16) of seats.

Who are the parties?

Belize operates a two-party system comprising the PUP (People’s United Party) and the UDP (United Democratic Party).

The PUP is broadly center-left party, originating as an anti-colonial movement under British rule. The UDP is a center-right party, formed in the 1970s before independence from different parties coming together to oppose the (then) all-powerful PUP.

The UDP won the first general election (1984) in a fully-independent Belize. In the seven general elections since then, the UDP has won four elections and the PUP three.

The UDP are currently in power and have been since 2008, under prime minister Dean Barrow.

Other parties exist in Belize, but the history of the country is dominated – for better or worse – by the UDP and PUP, and for this election at least, that won’t change.

Who’s running as prime minister?

2020 will be the first election in Belize where the incumbent prime minister won’t be running.

Dean Barrow, prime minister since 2008, is not running this time. He’s retiring from politics and has handed the reins of UDP leader to his education minister, Patrick Faber. Faber will either be the new prime minister if the UDP wins the majority of seats, or the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition if they don’t.

Faber is 42 years old and one the youngest politicians in Belize. If the UDP win tomorrow, he’ll be the youngest Belizean prime minister in the country’s history.

The PUP leader is Johnny Briceño, aged 60. He’s been in the House of Representatives since 1993 and served as Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Minister in the 1998-2008 PUP government.

What are the main issues this year?

A Breaking Belize News poll published yesterday cites corruption as the main issue, closely followed by unemployment and the economy.

Neither the PUP nor the UDP have stellar reputations when it comes to corruption. Both parties over the years can swap horror stories. But the UDP is in power right now, so people think of them as the corrupt party and PUP as the change party.

Before the pandemic, protesters marched against corruption in Belize City. Since COVID, Prime Minister Barrow’s preferred successor John Saldivar had to step down over a fraud scandal. This is why the younger Patrick Faber is now party leader and not Saldivar. None of this helps the UDP gain traction in any way.

Belize last ranked 108 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2008. Since then, Transparency International no longer even includes Belize due to lack of data.

Beyond corruption, the main concern is unemployment and the economy.

Some 40% of all jobs in Belize are tied to tourism. Tourism also accounts for 40% of Belize’s GDP. COVID put pay to all that when Belize closed its borders in March. Sure, Belize reopened on October 1, but there’s a long way to go to get back to normal and times are desperately hard.

COVID-19 comes next. Corruption, jobs, and the economy come higher, but Belizeans are still concerned about the pandemic. That said, Belizean political commentator Christian Riveroll, a PUP activist, doesn’t think COVID will affect votes too much.

One exception, according to Riveroll, is San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. San Pedro was the first part of Belize to shut down during COVID, with no-one allowed on or off the island.

Speaking on the Brent’s Two Cents Podcast, Riveroll believes voters in San Pedro are indignant at how other parts of Belize received what they perceive as more favorable treatment, meaning less-stringent lockdowns.

Crime, education, and housing are also hot-button issues in this election.

So who’s going to win the 2020 Belize election and will it make any difference anyway?

Most pundits and experts seem to believe this election has the PUP’s name on it.

The UDP have been in power since 2008 and people are sick of them. They want change. This is the view of journalist Glenn Tillett, also speaking on Brent’s Two Cents.

Experts expect turnout to be low. Many Belizeans see no major difference between either party and their abilities to make life better for them.

This doesn’t bode well for Patrick Faber and the UDP. Despite his personal youth, he’s connected with a party in power for over a decade, under which most people lost their jobs in 2020.

It’s not like voters think the PUP will save them if they win. But it appears they’re set to give them a chance for the sole reason they’re not the UDP.

At this point, in the words of Glenn Tillett, people are sick of 2020 and just want to move on.

James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.