By Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington
We are now into the twelfth month of the Briceño administration. Our country continues to experience the difficulties which the Barrow administration experienced during its last year in office. The Covid 19 Pandemic still rages on. There is no abatement of the gang related homicides. No comprehensive solution has been found to government’s financial woes. Tremendous challenges still exist in getting our population vaccinated and our schools to return to some semblance of normalcy. The public service continues to underperform. Corruption remains rife and rampant in governmental institutions and at every level of the governmental hierarchy. The current administration evinces neither the will, nor the capacity, to deal successfully with these difficulties and crises.
Sometime within the next two years it is expected that government will initiate the re-districting process. It is long overdue! It is being anxiously awaited by politicians! New electoral boundaries will be drawn. New constituencies may be created. Existing ones may disappear. Everything is up in the air at this time. But the imminent census exercise will no doubt shed a great deal of light on the likely direction the redistricting exercise will take.
Every redistricting exercise offers the opportunity for gerrymandering to take place. That is to say, the redistricting exercise creates the opportunity for electoral divisions to be drawn in such a way as to give an unfair advantage to one political party over the other.
Given the shape of the thirty one constituencies now in our country it is evident that efforts at gerrymandering have been made in past redistricting exercises. However, that subterfuge has had only negligible effects upon the outcome of our elections. Belizean voters have shown themselves to be very mature and enlightened in their use of the vote. As a consequence, no constituency has remained under the exclusive control of any political party or candidate in the last seventy-one years since voting began in our country.
The Belizean politician who has enjoyed the longest success at the polls is the Right Hon. George Cadle Price. He first won in the very first election which the People’s United Party contested in Belize City on 20th November 1950. Mr. Price then went on to win every other election which he contested up until 1984, when he was defeated by Derek Aikman, a first time political candidate in the Freetown constituency.
Although redistricting exercises invariably conjure up thoughts of dark schemes to give one party the advantage over the other, in reality they have always been benign. The truly wicked process in our electoral system is the voter registration process. That process is so broken that almost anyone can get registered in any constituency even though the law stipulates that only voters resident in a particular constituency can be lawfully registered in that constituency.
It is doubtful whether that particular provision in our Representation of the People’s Act was ever observed by our politicians. Mr. Price lost his seat in 1984 precisely because the young, energetic, fastidious, Derek Aikman, went painstakingly through the Freetown constituency registration roll, and was able to identify a large number of voters who did not live in the constituency and whose names, therefore, had no business on the Freetown electoral rolls. No previous opposition politician had apparently carried out such an exercise.
Aikman proceeded to challenge in court all those persons who were not physically resident in the Freetown constituency, but whose names nonetheless appeared on the Freetown electoral rolls and was successful in getting their names struck off. In the ensuing election, the majority of registered voters of Freetown chose him over the incumbent, George Cadle Price.
That defeat of George Price in Freetown was a watershed moment in Belizean politics. It marked the end of the political domination of the People’s United Party. It also marked the beginning of wholesale efforts to purchase elections in our country.
Post 1984 sustained, concerted, efforts have been made by well financed political candidates, to induce voters to register in their constituencies even though those voters did not reside in those constituencies. Over the years the inducements have included monetary payments, gifts of cell phones, gun licenses, and promises of house lots and employment, among other things.
That practice is now so popular and well established that voters from all across the country feverishly seek out politicians at registration and transfer times to offer to register in their constituencies. It is estimated that today, in some constituencies, as much as five percent of the registered voters are not from those constituencies. In constituencies where the margins of victory are as small as twenty-five to fifty votes, the registration of a couple hundred voters from outside the constituency is enough to seal the fate of the candidate who neglected to invest in the purchasing of votes.
Such a broken electoral process facilitates the election of persons of questionable competence, integrity and character to our National Assembly. Often times these people have neither interest in their constituents nor do they care about the well-being of our nation. They are motivated purely by the desire for power, status, greed and self-interest. Naturally such evil electoral practices have had very deleterious effect upon our national politics the most prominent of which is the fact that it has made the cost of participating in electoral politics prohibitively expensive. A substantial and ever increasing proportion of our voting population are neither prepared to get registered to vote nor to cast their ballots at election time unless they are paid so to do.
There is unquestionably a direct correlation between the quality of our political directorate and the state of our nation.
Our Belizean founding fathers inherited from the British a country with bountiful national resources. Our public service was very professional. We boasted a network of educational institutions that only required supervision and support. Our society was peaceful and law abiding. Indeed, when our politicians took over this country, it was in far better shape than when Lee Kwan Yew and his colleagues took over Singapore. Yet, today tiny Singapore has attained to first world status. We in Belize are teetering on the brink of a failed state.
If we are to attract our best leaders into electoral politics, it is imperative and urgent that we reform the electoral system. This reform should include the passage of legislation mandating that every Belizeans gets registered to vote within six months of attaining the age of 18. Legislation should also be passed criminalizing the making of false sworn statements upon the application to be registered as a voter. And, legislation should be passed mandating that every applicant to be registered as a voter who is not a home owner, and is not in possession of a recent utility bill in his/her name for the premises he/she claims to reside in, should produce an affidavit from the home owner attesting to the fact that he/she actually resides at the residence of the home owner. The minimum penalty for perjury should be a term of imprisonment.
For watchers of political developments in the mighty United States, it is truly frightening to contemplate the peril democracy seems to be in, at this moment, in that supposed bastion of democracy. It makes one shudder to think how easily our beloved country can find itself in the self-same predicament! To avoid such a fate we must be proactive and strengthen our democratic institutions and educate our people on democracy and patriotism. This is a matter of the utmost importance and urgency!