This tranquil haven of democracy: Voting for a standard bearer in Belize

On Sunday, Aug. 9, voters from around the Stann Creek District converged on the village of Independence to cast their ballots at a United Democratic Party (UDP) convention. It was a three-way race to represent the Stann Creek West electoral division as standard bearer in the next General Election (date as yet to be determined).

Heading across the lagoon from Placencia to Malacate. From there, we rode in a van to Independence.
Heading across the lagoon from Placencia to Malacate. From there, we rode in a van to Independence.

We boarded a boat for Independence on the lagoon side of Placencia at 10 a.m. on Sunday. It was one of several flying a United Democratic Party flag bearing the name, “Walter.” Of the dozen or so people on board, about half wore red t-shirts emblazoned with UDP slogans or pro-Walter wording in white lettering.

All three candidates used boats and buses to bring their supporters to the polls. Upon arrival at Independence Primary School, voters navigated a genial gauntlet of die-hard boosters at the school yard gate who encouraged undecideds to pick their candidates. I had the feeling there were not very many undecideds.

In addition to bringing people to the polls, each candidate provided supporters with a full rice-and-beans meal at midday.

Glen Eiley sports his "Por la unidad" shirt on convention day.
Glen Eiley sports his “Por la unidad” shirt on convention day.

There are two electoral divisions in the Stann Creek District: The principal town of Dangriga and the rest of the district, known as Stann Creek West. MORE

The three candidates:

  1. Walter Garbutt, retired teacher
  2. Nathan Young, UDP constituency chairperson
  3. Ivan Williams, Labour Commissioner of Belize

According to Belizebreakingnews.com, UDP party chairman “Alberto August described Sunday’s turnout as the biggest convention held by the United Democratic Party (UDP) in the division of Stann Creek West.” Walter Garbutt won with about 50 percent of the 3,100 votes cast.

My Aunt Martha greets candidate Walter Garbutt, a retired teacher.
My Aunt Martha greets candidate Walter Garbutt, a retired teacher.

I am not registered to vote in Belize (although, as a citizen and homeowner, I think I could be), so I attended the convention as an observer. 

Independence Primary School’s ground floor classrooms each served as polling places, based on alphabetical order. One room was reserved for the party Secretariat: UDP Secretary General Pearl Stuart and a team of party workers collected the paper ballots here, ensured their validity and stowed them away in a series of plastic bags. There were UDP staffers on hand to answer questions from voters about the process, but not about the candidates.

My aunt remembers a time when verifying voter eligibility was based on facial recognition: If a poll worker recognized you as living in the precinct where you said you lived, you could vote. Now, voters must be properly registered ahead of time and bring their photo IDs to the polls. Workers then check their list of registered voters to ensure you are eligible.

In Belize, where ballots are counted by hand, each voter dips an index finger into red ink to show he or she has already cast a ballot. Afterward, many people lingered in the school yard chatting with friends, meeting the candidates themselves or simply taking in the scene.

FullSizeRenderHon. Anthony “Boots” Martinez, Minister of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, mingled among the voters–shaking hands and thanking people for turning out.

Also on hand, the man whose departure from the party precipitated the convention: Melvin Hulse, former division standard bearer, came out to cast his ballot. In June, Hulse stepped down after a scandal involving tape recordings–recordings on which he reportedly slammed his party leader, Prime Minister Dean Barrow. Despite being in disgrace with party leadership, Hulse seems to remain popular with many voters, who greeted him with familiarity and affection. No doubt, Hulse voted for Nathan Young, whom he endorsed upon resigning from the party and his government post.

Overall, the atmosphere was peaceful and even festive. The stream of voters throughout the morning was steady and orderly. Still, the atmosphere, however easy-going, carried with it an urgency: This is important; we can vote, and we will vote.

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