Belize elects first black leader, ousts incumbent

BELIZE CITY Fri Feb 8, 2008 12:11pm EST

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BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Belize elected Dean Barrow as its first black prime minister, final results showed on Friday, as the small Central American nation ended a decade of one-party rule marked by graft scandals and economic problems.

Barrow, a former foreign minister, won a sweeping victory in Thursday's general election, Belize's chief election officer, Ruth Meighan, told Reuters.

Barrow's United Democratic Party, or UDP, took 25 of 31 constituencies against six for Prime Minister Said Musa, whose popularity slumped in recent years.

It was only the third defeat in half a century for Musa's People's United Party, or PUP, which has dominated politics since the former British colony of 300,000 people elected its first legislative assembly in 1954.

Belize, known for its laid-back Caribbean vibe, gained full independence from Britain in 1981.

Barrow's win also makes Musa, a white-haired former lawyer of Palestinian descent, the latest in a string of leaders ousted in Caribbean countries over the past year.

"This clearly is a people's victory. It's the people's judgment on the PUP. They're giving us a huge vote of confidence," Barrow, 56, told local radio on Friday as the count showed him far in the lead.

Barrow ran on a platform of ridding Belize, wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, of the embezzlement scandals and financial mismanagement that hurt Musa's last years in office.

"It's a great feeling. I'm extremely grateful and humbled," Barrow said, as his supporters drove through Belize City, hanging out of cars, honking their horns, waving UDP flags and thumping on car roofs.

In a diverse country of indigenous Maya, Mestizos and African-descended Creoles and Garifuna, many on the street were rejoicing at a Creole winning power. Belize's past leaders were born in Belize but of European descent.

FISCAL PRUDENCE

Investors in Belize's roughly $1 billion in public debt expected Barrow to maintain fiscal stability after a late-2006 debt restructuring stabilized the country's debt ratings.

"I'm fairly confident that he understands the importance of fiscal responsibility and transparency, and that's the key issue," said Bear Stearns analyst Carl Ross in New York.

"The other issue is getting the economy going, which means getting investment going in the tourism sector."

Barrow says he plans to get more Belizeans investing in the tourism industry which, despite the country's lush jungles and sparkling coral reefs, lags neighbors Costa Rica and Mexico.

Tall and easy-going with a shaven head and a rapper son, Barrow appealed to young Belizeans voting for the first time.

Musa, 63, did not comment on the election result.

Many older Belizeans are strongly attached to Musa's party for its role in ending British rule and because local party officials help poor families with school fees and free household appliances. But anger over tax hikes and alleged graft scandals erupted in anti-government riots in 2005. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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