By Caribbean News Now contributor
LONDON, England – An interim statement released by Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) chairman and former Bahamas prime minister, Hubert Ingraham, laid out the group’s initial observations. Ingraham described the vote as “credible, transparent and inclusive.”
The results revealed that 55,388 people voted yes (or 55.37 percent) and 43,028 voted no (44.63 percent). The official turnout was 64.93 percent.
COG’s conclusions stated, “Belizeans who took part in the process had the opportunity to express their will and exercise their franchise” and that the outcome “reflects the view of the majority of Belizeans who voted.”
The referendum question asked voters: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final settlement and that it determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”
Members of COG are Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Kenya, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda and the United Kingdom.
The group was deployed across Belize from May 7, covering Belize City, Belize District, Cayo, Stan Creek, Toledo, Orange Walk and Corozal. Observers met with election officials, police and monitors. They met with regional observers to build a comprehensive picture of the conduct of the process and observed the elections and boundaries commission’s preparations for the distribution of sensitive and non-sensitive materials.
Some issues raised with COG included: (1) Some potential voters reportedly being denied the franchise as a result of an inability to produce required voter re-registration documents from the office of vital statistics. (2) The adequacy and sufficiency of voter education. 3. The lack of regulations and appropriate provisions for legal challenges in the Belize Referendum Dispute Referendum Act, 2019.
COG’s initial observations were: (1) All of the polling stations they observed opened on time, with polling staff, voting materials, security and monitors present. (3) The prescribed opening procedures were followed. The majority of polling staff visited were female. (2) The set-up of polling stations was adequate, and most were accessible to persons with disabilities. Information centres which assisted voters to locate their polling stations and distribute voters’ cards, were a positive innovation for which we commend the election and boundaries department. (3) Voting followed the prescribed procedures. Voters requiring assistance or with a disability, but the elderly were given preferential access at polling stations. The overwhelming majority of voters found their names on the voters’ lists. (4) The prescribed procedures concerning the count and tabulation were followed. Monitors were present and witnessed the process.
COG’s conclusion, however, commends the returning and presiding officers, and polling staff who displayed professionalism in discharging their duties.
“We also wish to commend the referendum unit and referendum commission, civil society organizations, monitors, the media but the police for their respective roles in ensuring the success of the referendum and Belize for the laudable 65 percent of registered voters who turned out for the referendum.
“We encourage Belizean stakeholders to conduct a post-referendum review to further strengthen Belize’s governance institutions,” the interim statement said.
The referendum had been challenged before the Supreme Court of Belize on several grounds. This led to an injunction being issued by the Supreme Court delaying the original vote date. An appeal to the Court of Appeal to have the injunction lifted was lost by a majority vote.
Following the postponement of the referendum, the observer group departed Belize before parliament passed the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill on the 12 and April 15. It was assented to by the governor general and gazetted April 16 with a new date set for May 8.