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Transitional provisions of the 1981 constitution permitted members of the preindependence National Assembly to continue in office until new elections were set. In 1984 Prime Minister George Price called for elections. The PUP under the leadership of George Price held thirteen of the twenty-one seats in the House of Representatives in the years immediately before and after independence. The PUP was beginning to show signs of weakness, however, after having dominated national politics for thirty years. This weakness was evident as early as 1974, when the UDP polled 49 percent of the vote (but won only six of eighteen seats). In 1977, the PUP failed to capture a single seat on the Belize City Council. It was not until the general election on December 14, 1984, that the PUP suffered its first defeat at the national level. The UDP under Manuel Esquivel won twenty-one of the twenty-eight seats in the newly enlarged House of Representatives. The PUP won only seven seats, and one PUP member defected and late created the Belize Popular Party in 1985. The UDP confirmed its strength when it dominated the municipal elections in March 1985 and won control of five of the eight municipal councils.
A ten-year effort to harness opposition to the PUP culminated in the UDP's victory in the 1984 general election. The UDP campaign focused on economic issues because the PUP had a poor economic record for the 1981-84 period. The UDP stressed its conservative, free-enterprise, and pro-United States approach, but of equal importance, but of equal importance in the PUP's defeat was simply the country's readiness for a change. George Price had risen to national prominence in the 1950s, and the PUP had been the ruling party ever since 1964, when internal self-rule was instituted. Price tried to hold the middle ground while the PUP split into left and right camps. Meanwhile, the track record of the UDP at the local level made it a credible alternative to the PUP. Moreover, the leadership of Manuel Esquivel probably enhanced the appeal of the UDP. Esquivel, like George Price, is both Mestizo and Creole in origin and was thus able to bridge the main ethnic division in the country.
Buoyed by the country's strong economic growth in 1989, Prime Minister Esquivel in July of that year called an election for September 4, several months sooner than necessary. The PUP, however, won the election by a small margin, carrying 50.3 percent of the vote and capturing fifteen seats in the House of Representatives. The UDP won 48.4 percent of vote and thirteen seats. PUP's fifteen-to-thirteen seat majority grew to sixteen-to- twelve when a UDP member switched parties in December 1989.
Two issues, the economy and Belizean citizenship, dominated the election. The UDP had overseen an International Monetary Fund economic stabilization plan inherited from the previous PUP government and stressed the country's economic progress. The PUP, however, focused on the high unemployment rate, the large trade deficit, and large national debt. It also attacked the government's policy of selling Belizean citizenship to Hong Kong Chinese and accused the UDP of excessive reliance on foreign investment to the detriment of Belizeans. The PUP stated its preference for a mixed economic model under Belizean national control and effectively used the slogan "Belizeans First." The PUP also accused the UDP of political repression and harassment through the control and censorship of the media and the creation of the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS).
Other factors beyond the issues, however, help to explain the UDP's defeat. Having assumed responsibility for governing the country, the UDP neglected its party organization and was plagued by internal divisions before and after the election. The party's newspaper acknowledged that the bitterness of the nominating convention had hurt the UDP. And after the PUP won every seat on the Belize City Council in municipal elections in December 1989, the paper charged that prominent UDP figures had failed to campaign for the party. Meanwhile, the PUP entered the election as a unified, centrist party, which shed its right and left wings.
Personality is an important factor in Belizean politics, and personal vilification is a standard campaign strategy. Many people perceived Esquivel and other UDP ministers as arrogant and snobbish. In contrast, Price was considered a populist, whose personal religiosity and moral austerity always won him--and indirectly the PUP--support from the religious vote.
Despite the diversity of Belizean society, ethnic and religious differences rarely entered overtly into national politics. Parties based on ethnic identity never formed, and no single ethnic group dominated the PUP or the UDP. Nevertheless, ethnic political tension focused on the balance of power between Creoles and others, especially the Mestizos. The Creole middle class of Belize City adopted British culture, language and religion. This group, the bulwark of British colonialism in Belize, gave Belize City an antiCentral American outlook. Other parts of the country, however, tended to share an ethnic and religious identity with the peoples of Central America. Recent Central American immigration has threatened the balance between Creole and non-Creole, and the UDP attempted to tap resentment toward the refugees in the 1984 election. Although the influx of refugees slowed in the late 1980s, Central American refugees may have accounted for as much as 17 percent of the population in 1989. Most were peasants who were readily absorbed into the agricultural sector, but these Spanishspeaking immigrants may be carrying the seeds of future political tensions by contributing to changes in the ethnic makeup of the country.
George Price and the PUP have long championed Belize's Central American identity. In the late 1950s, Price opposed Belize's inclusion in a proposed West Indies Federation that would have united Belize with the English-speaking Caribbean islands. Joining the federation would have raised the specter of immigration from the islands, which are populated mostly by Creoles and Protestants. This long-standing support for strong ties with Central America undoubtedly contributed to the PUP's strong performance among Spanish-speaking voters in the western and southern parts of the country in the 1989 election. But the PUP by no means had a monopoly on Mestizo voters. Moreover, the PUP's failure to include more Creoles in its top leadership might hurt the party in the future. In fact, the PUP cabinet that was appointed after the 1989 election included only one member that most Belizeans would identify as a Creole. Opponents have charged Price with attempting to "latinize" the country and with selling Belize short in negotiations with Guatemala.
Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the number of ethnic associations and councils grew. These associations were dedicated to promoting cultural pride and cohesion, self-reliance, and community participation and action. Although generally seen in a positive light, they were criticized by some observers, who expressed the fear that the revival of ethnic consciousness after several decades of integration was likely to lead Belize into escalating ethnic conflict.
More about the Government and Politics of Belize.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress