“…the only thing we saw from the previous council are the good streets that we are killed on…” Micah Goodin, newly elected Belize City Councilor
Elections are over in Belize and the results were shocking with aftershocks yet to follow. While I believed that United Democratic Party would lose ground in the municipal election, I did not anticipate such an astonishing defeat in the old capital. Only one person, Verlene Pitts, correctly predicted the city loss. I personally thought the city would yield a split council. The United Democratic Party was unable to retain a single city council seat in a political powerhouse and in what appeared to be a hard-working council. The seemingly improbably defeat exposed severe weaknesses in several UDP strong hold Belize City constituencies, making the silent voter who sat out the municipal elections an untapped power punch; 49% of city residents did not vote. More people sat out elections in the city than determined the margin of winners.
So, what happened?
While the Prime Minister highlighted some obvious weaknesses, his analysis did not go deep enough because he probably did not want to publicly criticize the missteps and failures of the UDP and obviously he did not want to build on the People’s United Party momentum; PUP finally broke the political barriers that kept them in exile from any significant political leadership for more than ten years; and to the political observer, PUP won Belize city without much fanfare, fireworks and candidate name recognition.
The UDP blamed voter fatigue, outspending, not enough men on the ground challenging key positions etc., but the party will need to take an insightful analysis as how they are perceived by the voters.
Here are my observations as an arm chair analyst/ Facebook commentator I was coined by OJ and other members of the UDP. There were many factors that made this loss predictive for those willing to take an unbiased look….
The United Democratic Party Belize City campaign team disregarded an important aspect in every successful campaign- the personal people aspect. The UDP known supporters and campaigners were publicly abusive and dismissive; in fact, the negative perceptions may not be from the candidates themselves, just their entourage of friends and cronies feasting at the trough of the tax payer. The chosen few members operate like a popular teenage cliché, showcasing their access and money; sometimes taking grand trips around the world and plastering it all over social media thinking that social media likes equal political popularity. Some of the supporters were online bullies and while they were dominant in many online conversations; many spent an enormous amount of time defending, accusing and pointing fingers, but spent little time listening, reading, analyzing, or being sympathetic to the concerns raised.
There were hundreds of conversations happening daily in groups with as many as 100K followers. These UDP operatives used social media to brag within a small political microscope and appeared to voters that their lifestyles were tax payer sponsored. The perception created a very negative perception. Social Media has evolved into a very important and powerful device in politics. Social media is big in Belize City. Most city residents have access to social media, regardless of their economic conditions. Social media is a transformative and compelling tool because the communication is extensive, the messaging is instant, the audience is substantial, and the message can be recycled in many ways and can always be presented as current. According to Cornell University’s Steven Strogatz, social media sites can make it more difficult for us to distinguish between the meaningful relationships we foster in the real world, and the numerous casual relationships formed through social media. Someone who misunderstands this, can magnify the perception of their political party either positively or negatively. The misconceptions can also mislead one into thinking that their message is resonating. Arguably the perception of the Belize city political elites left much to be desired.
Social media also affords the unique ability to organize, energize and connect. Discussions are real time, constant and telling of the perceptions of the average person. The UDP operatives misused social media and media in this campaign. On many issues they dominated the dialogue but were tone deaf to the beat of the city. The “optics” were horrible in a city overwhelmed with poverty and crime.
Many UDP supporters will attest that their support of the United Democratic Party begins and ends with the Hon. Dean Barrow and his loud powerful stance against corruption where he promised to address it whenever and wherever it appeared. When PUP demitted office, not even money could buy the support of voters because the corruption and disregard for the common man left an anger in the society that played out for over ten years. Now in 2018, UDP Belize City find themselves pretty much in the same scenario. The people of Belize are over corruption, excuses for corruption, “lack of proof” of corruption and failure to tackle systematic failures that allow corruption to thrive. One UDP confided that she did not vote because she refuses to vote anymore for the lesser of two evils. The Boots Martinez controversy and Montero controversy weighed heavily on citizens who are truly fed up with corruption. PUP, at their own peril, defended the decision of the new city council’s appointment of Joe Coye to head of the transition team.
The failure of the United Democratic Party to effectively address the vicious crime rate in Belize City, failure to acknowledge and sympathize with parents of dead babies was callous. I can’t imagine who advised the government to take a silent approach on this issue. The head in the sand approach no longer works in a social media era. In times of despair and hopelessness, people look to leadership for support. The only person publicly offering condolences was the leader of the opposition. The Prime Minister and every UDP Minister who represented these divisions silence was deafening. If anyone saw the video of one young man with his daughter who expressed outrage over the death of the 17month baby, would have clued anyone into the anger brewing in the city. The man in the video was visibly enraged, his anger was powerful, raw and scary.
The removal of Police Officer Chester from the City for Vidal was a poor decision. Chester along with Nuri Muhammad and Diane Finnegan had brokered a fragile peace among gang members in Belize City and with the removal of Chester, Vidal ushered in a brute force police dominance. Vidal was less sympathetic to gang members and the videos of police brutality flooded social media. I also believe that the murder of popular barber Fareed Ahmed for which a police officer was arrested, and the deteriorated relationship with police and the citizenry added to the perception that there was no love for the affected citizens by the political elites. The PUP also used effective propaganda videos showing powerful ministers giving interviews that the crime rate only affected a certain area; suggesting that the crime rate was not a big issue for them.
The UDP Belize City political commercials were silly, playful, corruption deflection, finger pointing and completely aloof and insensitive to the daily struggles of the citizens especially amid a crime spree and a murder rate that was as high as one murder every 42 hours. The UDP wanted the citizenry to examine the levels of corruption against a PUP government that has not been in power for over ten years. The argument was old, and it created an impression that UDP was now okay with corruption if it wasn’t as bad as PUP’s corruption.
UDP had a popular outgoing mayor with a constituency bigger than any other elected official in the country of Belize, Yet Mayor Bradley was practically invisible during the campaigning process. The people of Belize, regardless of political persuasion loved Mayor Bradley, he created a business like, corruption free environment; but he was treated at arms -length. Bradley is a good candidate for leadership in the party, not necessarily party leader yet, but instead of a political snob, why not bring him to the forefront, offer him a secure division such as Dean Barrow’s division or even Boots or Elrington…begin grooming him for future leadership. Mayor Bradley should have been effectively utilized to see if he could be effective nationally as he is for the municipal elections. When UDP treats UDP with disdain, it creates even less public trust and love for the party. The perception is “if they will treat their own in that manner, what will they do to us”.
UDP also has a very poor relationship with their supporters and allow rabid party supporters to further undermine the rapport. It appears UDP opts for a transactional pay to play relationships and have not forged deep committed relationships like the party of the past. The George Price generation of die- hard support and loyalty voters are diminishing, which makes the swing vote population more powerful than ever. The youths are less impressed with status quo. Politicians today are under complete scrutiny and people are beginning to understand their power. Political apathy and distrust grows and as such, enough was not done to convince the voter that they were the only choice; evident in the numbers that voted against the UDP and those who sat out the elections; numbers that could easily flip outcome for either party in the general elections.
Another problem, much like the pre-2008 PUP, too many family members are intertwined in the middle of party business making unbiased analysis near impossible. The family members visibility in powerful positions adds to the perception of a few beneficiaries within the party. The image of political elitism need to be addressed.
The UDP will need to go back to the drawing board and address these deficiencies before going into a national election. UDP is also headed for a leadership change and the party will need to start making effective, succinct and expeditious changes to prepare for 2020. Belize City will be far more important for a national election win.
What was PUP’s formula for success in the City?
The People’s United Party formula was easy. They spent less time show timing and more time grass root campaigning. PUP members were engaged online but from the perspective of activists. They engaged the online community, promoted the issues of concern and push propaganda in effective ways. They were able to deflect the corruption charges with fresh new blood in the party. PUP recruited the salt of the earth Belize City candidates who were already activist, community organizers, health care providers and candidates from the south side Belize. The PUP candidates were people who overcame their own obstacles of poverty and rose to leadership. The PUP candidates were credible to the citizenry.
Another effective tool by the PUP was to turn the attention from the true responsibilities of the city council, which involves maintaining the city to a national conversation around crime and corruption. The outgoing UDP city council did an excellent job maintaining the city and PUP had nothing to compare to it. When PUP changed the conversation, UDP did not effectively redirect the conversation to the responsibilities of the city, choosing instead to wage a finger pointing corruption war which only reflected on UDP as the party in power.
The Opposition Leader Johnny Briceno also brought forth instances of corruption by Belize City Minister Boots Martinez; all indications of the last general elections, Boots and Elrignton were weak candidates winning their divisions by small margins. The powerhouse Ashcroft owned entity of Channel 5 helped PUP make the argument credible. Channel 5 focused on crime and hammered on Elrington making multiple faux pas remarks around growing concerns of Guatemala; and taking an aloof approach to crime and policing for which he is in charge. The reporting on Boots accusation of corruption made a very strong case of UDP’s disregard for supporters. Boots accusation was powerful because his accuser indicated an uncompassionate Boots, who uses his assistant to gain access to his bank account without any reward. The assistant publicly admitting to laundering money through his bank account with 100% of the proceeds going to Boots. The corruption charges added to the credence to a perception that UDP uses supporters for their own selfish intentions. This narrative was used by many PUP operatives. “Only a few benefits under the UDP”.
PUP made inroads during the midterm elections and have ignited their base into action. PUP however already made a serious misstep with the controversial pick of Coye. The pick created controversy and in old political style, PUP defended the decision. This misstep is indicative of why the silent vote remains powerful as they sit and wait to see which party will rise to the expectations of the electorate.
As I am not as familiar with the North and South politics, I will give a tale of two cities, Belmopan and Belize City.
Contrasting Belmopan UDP win/PUP loss vs Belize City PUP win/UDP loss- Khalid is a well-liked mayor. He is humble, respectful, accessible and he works. John and Khalid have a good working relationship and John works his division and he adapts quickly and responds effectively to criticism. John and Khalid keep a relatively low social media presence, John only to address and promote Belmopan events or to address controversies. At one point, John had the same rabid supporters around him, but I think the public discontent was heard and that problem was seemingly addressed. The offenders have taken on a less social media presence. John can be described as passionate and zealous about his politics, seemed to have matured over the years and have worked the division thru losses and wins. He is impressive and politically astute, because he understands the political constituency and respond efficiently and competently to the electorate. John told me he would bring home all his candidates and he was right. I thought Anna departure would hurt the party initially, but that was quickly squashed which did not allow the negative to spill out into the political arena for too long.
PUP did not present a good Belmopan team. PUP brought the same message to Belmopan that was effective in Belize City, but the cities are not plagued with the same problems. PUP failed to use the same formula that was effective in the city. The PUP aspirants were relatively newcomers to the Belmopan community except for JB Wade and Brian Mira. The successful Belmopan City Council, much like the Belize City council winning team, have salt of the earth credible residents Similarly, they spent a lot of time grass root campaigning and limited their social media to campaign messaging and working messages. You did not see one Belmopan political aspirant using social media to brag about their access or success. Most of the messages were conservative and thankful. I also believe that Mayor Belisle has softened up John’s image quite a bit. The popular and humble mayor is well spoken, hard worker and well liked and have forged a working partnership with John; that working relationship is beneficial to the Belmopan residents. Things can be done when the city council and the area representatives are from the same party. The Belmopan team through trial and error understands that relationship building is a key component for continued political success.
While there is still discontent in Belmopan as with any community, the discontent is nowhere close to Belize City. As a city, Belmopan is thriving. There is less crime; the poor are not in destitute and drug infested conditions. Belmopan residents are also able to transition out of poverty, more diversity, more access to NGOs, Embassy contributions, scholarships, good schools, living spaces and a very dynamic community vested in their own future. The Belmopan voter is far less dependent on government to handouts. Hence Belize City messaging is meaningless in Belmopan.
While the United Democratic did lose the biggest constituency, there were significant wins in Central and Southern Belize and while PUP did lose the Central and Southern Belize, they made significant wins in the North, Belize City and made significant impact in San Pedro. PUP and UDP will see leadership challenges and how that plays out will have a significant impact on the national elections.
Both parties will need to realistically examine their present state and work thru their successes and failures; Parties will need to take a serve the people approach and tone down their rabid supporters who see politics as a blood sport winner takes all game. Politics have greatly evolved in Belize and each election brings in new voters with different expectations. People want a stake in their future and the messaging will be very important going forward. Leadership will also play an important role in how people perceive political parties. Political parties must begin the arduous process of dropping dead weight and attracting the young and vibrant talent to their pool. The question of corruption can no longer be deflected. The people of Belize want opportunity, access, security and corruption free government. The municipal election reminded both political parties who are really in charge. Democracy was vibrant, the people spoke or remained silent. Political parties must be mindful that a much bigger election is upon us and that election will awaken a silent powerful vote. Who will hear and respond?