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The most effective form of democracy? The winner-takes-all system doesn’t represent everyone Can Woud

According to the Election and Boundaries Department, there are 178,054 registered voters in Belize, of which only 73 percent (130,303) actually voted on Wednesday, March 7, 2012.

Post-General Election figures showed that out of that 73 percent more than 1,400 ballots were rejected and that about 2,000 votes were in favour of independent or third party candidates; therefore, it is clear that the total number of votes received by Belize’s two major parties, the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), was approximately 127,000 – which is roughly 71 percent of the total number of registered voters.

UDP, which now holds 17 seats in the House of Representatives, received 64,976 votes, while the opposition received 61, 832. This represents a difference of 3,144. When  looked at as a percentage of the net amount of those who actually showed up on election day to cast their ballots,  the UDP received about 51 percent, while PUP walked away with 49 percent.

But when the number of votes received by both the UDP and PUP are reflected as percentages of the total number of registered voters (including those who did not vote on March 7th), we find that UDP only received 36 percent, and the opposition received 35 percent – a total of approximately 71 percent between the two major parties. But what about that 29 percent that either abstained or voted for a third party or an independent candidate?

With this type of statistics, Belize’s politics can essentially be looked at as being divided into thirds: one-third UDP, one-third PUP and one-third independent, undecided or third party. An indication to this type of allocation was also shown in the pre-election polls, one of which was conducted by Yasmin Andrews and Karim Berges in January this year.

The Andrews-Berges poll revealed that 33 percent of the respondents would have voted UDP, 30 percent PUP, and another 33 percent were undecided.

More than 60 percent have no voice!

If we look logically and objectively at the numbers, we would realize one concerning fact: only 36 percent (little over one-third) of the electorate is represented by the ruling UDP administration.

Belize employs the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, which is a winner-takes-all approach to politics. Therefore, in an average election, even a minor lead on Election Day can give a political party majority control, as was seen in both the 2003 and 2008 general election.

In the 2008 general elections, UDP obtained 56.61 percent of the votes and the PUP received 40.72 percent. This constitutes a minor 16 percent difference, but because of the FPTP system, the 31 seats in the House were distributed 80-20 percent in favour of UDP.

The same thing occurred in 2003, when the Musa administration, having received 53 percent of the votes, took 22 of the then 29 seats in the House (about 76 percent).

This year’s election didn’t result in such a landslide victory, because the Opposition was able to win a large minority: 17-14 seats. However, the fundamental flaw remains, because Belize’s law allows general legislation to be passed in the House as long as the proponents of any bill have the majority – regardless of how small.

That degree of unyielding power should be a matter of legitimate apprehension, because when one comprehends the definition and function of political institutions (political parties), the questions must be asked: ‘Who is really being represented? And whose voices aren’t as important?’

A political party is defined as an organized group of people who have similar philosophies about how the country should be managed and, of course, they share common (economic and social) interests. These parties compete to gain public support to get their respective parties elected to political power so they can execute their ideals.

When Belizeans consider that only 36 percent of the total electorate voted Red in March, it means that (in an extreme sense) that a mere 65,000 gets first dibs over the other 113,000 voters, who either went blue, independent, or were just too disillusioned to even bother showing up to vote.

This virtually means that more than 60 percent of the voting public have no priority voice in the House, and suggests that the government of the day can be more ignorant or apathetic to the ideas, suggestions, wants or needs of this larger group of citizens.

Is it a real or 

nominal problem?

A good example of whether or not this is a real problem could be drawn from the current battle with the Belize U.S. Dollar Bond and its ongoing renegotiation process.

Last Wednesday, The Reporter spoke with the Leader of the Opposition Hon. Francis Fonseca concerning Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s remarks as to why the Debt Review Team, which is leading the negotiations with the bondholders, did not see it fit to consult with the Opposition before presenting their indicative restructuring scenarios, or before deciding to not meet the August 20th “super bond” coupon payment of $U.S. 23 million.

Barrow speaking at a press conference last week said, “It was as a matter of courtesy, perhaps I might have called Mr. Fonseca to tell him beforehand that we wouldn’t make the August payment. But, I don’t think that Belizeans would expect us to involve the Opposition in any serious way, in terms of the restructuring exercise.”

To that statement Fonseca said that if the Prime Minister is really serious about getting “national support” in restructuring the Belize U.S. Dollar Step-Up bond, he cannot afford to exclude the Opposition.

“We represent more than 45% of the electorate (those who actually voted). So if you’re going to seek their support it is important for you to dialogue with us, engage with us and respect us,” he said.

Barrow went as far as to say that the Debt Review Team consulted with private sector members such as the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Belize Tourism Industry Association, and even the newly formed social activist group Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA); but failed to consult the opposition, saying only that they will be informed via the relevant House Committee.

Certainly, the Prime Minister interpreted his administration’s return to power as the electorate’s stamp of approval, and – as it pertains to that 65,000 – he might be fundamentally right, because in the pre-Election Day campaigning Barrow did declare his intent  to “do something” about the “superbond,” so anyone who voted red in essence gave the Barrow administration that new mandate. That’s a good lesson to remind voters how important that “X” on Election Day is, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For now we must ask how many Belizeans  truly support the move to put Belize in the hard-pay books alongside countries like Argentina, when the party only represents 51 percent of those who actually voted?

We also must ask how many truly support GOB’s recent actions when this political institution only reflects the decisions of 36 percent of the total number of registered voters? Two-thirds (about 64%) of the country’s electorate may see things differently.

And yet, it could be viewed as a tit-for-tat game indeed, because the entire “superbond” mess was created under the PUP administration. Under their 10-year rule, the nations’ commercial debt ballooned to billion-dollar heights, which the administration, on the brink of a 2007 default, compiled into the US$547 million “superbond”.

The administration, free to spend monies obtained from the commercial market as it pleased, engaged in its own brand of questionable spending during their term in office. They failed or chose not to make proper investments, as would be the prudent thing to do when using deficit financing; and, they also failed to establish the systems and investments necessary for us to be able to service the debt. And, yes, they made those decisions in the same way as the UDP: they excluded the two-thirds based on the interests and ideals of their leading minority.

However, the behaviour of the elected officials and their respective parties is not the flaw itself; these matters are only but the symptoms of a larger, more fundamental problem. The true problem could be traced back to the First-Past-The-Post (winner-takes-all) electoral system that is used in Belize.

Proportional 

Representation 

– a good cure

If the problem is that political institutions can dominate because of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system in which the winner takes all, wouldn’t it be wise to alter or all together change the system?

There is an alternative mode known as Proportional Representation (PR), which is a democratic electoral system in which every vote counts, because elected officials are given seats in the House “in proportion” to the number of votes received and is not dependent on whether or not they actually win in their respective constituencies.

The system has three main forms: the Party List system in which entire political parties are chosen, the Single-Transferrable-Vote method where voters rank individual candidates, and the Mixed-Member Proportional System in which the voter gets to vote for the party of his choice and one for a parliamentary candidate.

This approach to electoral politics has been associated with several significant improvements in other countries that use any of the three forms of Proportional Representation.

Among the top benefits of the system, PR has reportedly improved voter turnout, which is attributed to the fact that minority voters know their vote matters more in PR; increased women participation in politics both as voters and successful candidates; and it has augmented the levels of equality to name a few.

Doing away with the government of the privileged

If we take the recent election for example, had Proportional Representation been the system being employed, and closer to all 178, 054 registered voters (less apathetic because every vote counts) came to the polls, we may have achieved a much more balanced structure.

As things stand now, many of those in the “undecided” category may not have wanted to support the more popular parties, but also felt they would be “throwing away” a vote if they voted for a less popular party; therefore, those voters – disillusioned with the inequalities and discrimination that permeates the FPTP system – may have done one of two things: reluctantly voted for either PUP or UDP, or opted to abstain from voting all together.

But under PR, the 29 percent that probably didn’t want to vote Blue or Red, and would have voted for either the Belize Unity Alliance (BUA) or other independent candidates would have been assured representation in the House of Representatives close to the tune of 29 percent, while UDP and PUP would have received their 36 and 35 percent respectively.

This would mean that of the 31 seats in the House, UDP would have about 12, the PUP would have about 10, and the BUA (independents) would have secured approximately 9 seats. That structure would be more representative of a true democracy whereby all sectors of society have a voice in parliamentary affairs.

Most importantly, it would force the “leading minority” to consult with the Opposition (the party with the second most votes) and the BUA, which collectively would outnumber the government with a total of 19 seats. Before presenting economic policies or changes to the law, the government would need to “befriend,” consult and negotiate with both parties if it intends to make any such changes.

The power in numbers principle as described above would have also completely altered the way in which the Ninth (now eighth) amendment was passed into law last year.

PR fights corruption & fosters growth

When all sectors have a voice and could offer their expertise in the framing of economic and social policies, it is, therefore, no surprise to find that about 16 out of the 25 wealthiest countries around the world use a form of Proportional Representation.

According to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) that ranked 182 countries last year, 15 of those same nations are considered to have the least corruption.

Belize, unfortunately, has not been ranked on the CPI since 2008; and, the U.S. Department of State’s report, when addressing the years in which Belize was ranked, said, “it had been declining steadily for five years through 2008, from a score of 4.5 and ranking of 60 in 2004.”

The U.S. Department of State stated that “Belize was ranked 99th overall with a score of 3.0 in 2007 and 109th in 2008, with a score of 2.9.”

It is clear that we need to work to upgrade our one-third democracy and institutionalize a system that engenders true representation for all the people, and enables all citizens – who should be the true Integrity Commission of a country – to have stronger say in the direction the country is to go.

The people must also reject the current political polarization that survives so comfortably in the FPTP system. The winner-takes-all principle can easily lead some to forget that nation building isn’t a matter for a few; it’s is a matter for all.

It can lead some to forget that politics and government should not be allowed to be about “cronyism”, and it should not ignore the practical inputs of any one group of voters; but rather it should be about building a level playing field for everyone, because a country divided cannot stand.

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