Belize is electing a new prime minister as the Central American country remains in the grip of an economic slump deepened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow in February handed the reins of his United Democratic Party (UDP) to Patrick Faber, who is seeking on Wednesday to secure a fourth consecutive term in power for Belize’s conservative rulers against a centre-left adversary, the People’s United Party (PUP).
However, with an economy that was in the doldrums long before the coronavirus battered the Caribbean country’s tourism, its principal driver of prosperity, Faber may face a struggle against his PUP opponent, former Deputy Prime Minister Johnny Briceno.
Belize’s economy has shrunk on an annual basis every quarter since the April-June period last year through to the second quarter of 2020, the latest period for which data is available, according to government statistics.
The Belize Election and Boundaries Department, which is responsible for conducting Wednesday’s poll, said 182,815 Belizeans are eligible to cast ballots.
Voting officials plan to enforce physical distancing and masks are required at polling stations. No gathering will be allowed, so people will enter the polling stations, vote and head back home.
There is a curfew in place on election night from 8pm (02:00 GMT) until 5am (11:00 GMT) on Thursday. No one is allowed out in public, except media workers and the candidates along with two or three assistants who must have prior approval.
Demois Williams, 28, a graphic designer from Belize City who recently lost her job in the hotel industry, said she hoped the election would shake up the political scene and put an end to what she described as the “oligarchy” of the past 15 years.
“For too long, the common electorate has sat at the sidelines of poverty, watching our [parliament] mirror a monarchy that older generations, still stuck in a neo-colonial society, elected,” said Williams, who plans to vote for a third party.
The prolonged downturn has left many voters in Belize fighting poverty, while the government imposes hefty fines on anyone caught in public not wearing a face mask, lending an especially sharp edge to the precarious times.
The main international airport of the country of some 400,000 people only re-opened last month, giving little time for the economy to recover ahead of the vote.
Flooding from Storm Eta that hit Belize earlier this month was a challenge in some parts of the country, but would not stop the election, Barrow said in comments reported by the Caribbean National Weekly news website.
Scandals and corruption allegations have taken the shine off Barrow’s premiership, and grumblings about nepotism have been fed by the fact his sister is running to succeed him in Parliament while a son, a former convict, is also on the UDP ticket.
Reliable polls are few and far between in the former British colony, making the outcome of the vote hard to predict.
Results were expected by midnight and, as per tradition and barring any extenuating circumstances, the new prime minister should be sworn in by midday on Thursday.