Belize Table of Contents
Belize has a functioning two-party political system revolving around the PUP and the UDP. Dissident members of these parties periodically struck out on their own and founded new parties, but they have usually foundered after a few years. In early 1991, no parties besides the PUP and the UDP were active.
People's United Party headquarters, Belize City
Courtesy Steven R. Harper
Almost since its founding in 1950, the People's United Party (PUP) has been the dominant force in Belizean politics. With the exception of the 1984 election, the PUP has won every national election between 1954 and 1989. The party grew out of a circle of alumni from Saint John's College, a Jesuit-run secondary school. Roman Catholic social-justice theory, derived from such sources as the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum and the work of the French neo-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain, had a strong influence on these alumni. The group included many men who later became important political figures, such as George Price, Herbert Fuller, and Philip Goldson. The group won municipal elections in Belize City in the 1940s by addressing national issues and criticizing the colonial regime. Members were then poised to exploit the popular discontent that resulted from the unilateral decision of the governor to devalue the currency in late 1949. The group founded the People's Committee in response to the devaluation, and in September 1950 the People's Committee was reconstituted as the PUP.
The party tapped the organizational strength of the labor movement by piggybacking onto the General Workers' Union (GWU), which had established branches throughout the country during the 1940s. The PUP quickly surpassed the GWU in importance, largely because the overlapping leadership of the GWU and the PUP subordinated the interests of the union to those of the party. The PUP swept the 1954 election, the first one to be held after the introduction of full literate adult suffrage, easily defeating the National Party, a rival sponsored by the colonial government.
The PUP's success, however, set the stage for a split in 1956 over the questions of how far the party should cooperate with the colonial regime and whether to endorse the British initiative for a West Indies Federation. Members favoring cooperation constituted a majority of the PUP's Central Party Council and the party's representatives in the legislature. George Price, however, had the support of the rank and file for his intransigent approach. Following the resignation of the dissident leaders, Price enjoyed undisputed control of the PUP.
Price has been a preeminent politician over the years for several reasons. First, he has been recognized as the ablest and most charismatic politician among the PUP founders and he has been seen as the spokesmen for the anticolonial movement. Second, the party's split in 1956 saw the departure of the PUP's other top leaders, enabling Price to begin building a political machine in which local leaders were personally loyal to him. Third, when the PUP assumed control of the internal government in 1964, the locus of power shifted from the party to the cabinet, which Price was able to choose. Internal party mechanisms and structures began to atrophy, and party conventions served mainly to ratify decisions already made by a small group that Price headed.
The concentration of decision-making power in the hands of a small circle of leaders headed by Price helped the PUP organize across ethnic, class, and rural-urban lines under a common banner of anticolonial nationalism. But by discouraging broad participation in setting party policy, the power arrangement also hindered the rise of younger leaders.
Young members of the PUP's left wing, including Said Musa, V.H. Courtenay, and Assad Shoman, pushed through a new party constitution in 1975 designed to encourage greater participation by the rank and file and to counter declining popular support for the party. The party's older leadership, however, resisted the reformed constitution and effectively blocked its implementation. Observers of Belizean polities have often cited an aging leadership lacking fresh ideas and out of contact with the people, especially with younger voters, as a reason for the PUP's defeat in 1984.
The relatively small leadership circle, however, failed to prevent the rise of factions within the PUP. Although Price has always held a centrist position, the PUP has often been torn by strife between its left and right wings because of conflicting personalities and agendas within the leadership. Observers have also cited party disunity as a factor in the 1984 defeat. In the wake of that defeat, leaders from both the right and left wings abandoned or were expelled from the party. The PUP thus entered the 1989 election more ideologically unified than it had been for many years.
The centrist ideology of the PUP seems to reflect the personal outlook of George Price, who has consistently called the orientation of the party "Christian Democratic," endorsed "wise capitalism," and rejected both "atheistic communism" and "unbridled capitalism."
The primary thrust and ideological appeal of the PUP, however, remained its nationalism and anticolonialism. In the 1989 election, for example, the PUP accused the UDP of having pandered to foreign speculators whose investments did little to help Belizeans. The 1989 PUP platform called for restricting the sale of Belizean property to foreigners, halting the sale of Belizean passports, reducing the role of United States Agency for International Development (AID) in the country, and nationalizing the University College of Belize, which the UDP government had developed under an agreement with Michigan's Ferris State College. Party documents commit the PUP to "economic democracy," and the party's leaders have endorsed a "mixed economic model with Belizean national control." Still, the PUP has sought investment by foreign firms, including ones from the United States, and the party's differences with the UDP on these matters were often based more on style and rhetoric than on substance.
Data as of January 1992
Belize Table of Contents