March 7, 2012 / 7:01 AM / 7 years ago

Belize votes in election key to financial future

* Belize’s 178,000 voters urged to have their say

* Centrist UDP government seeking second term

* Superbond, offshore drilling, security are key issues

By Krista Hughes

SAN PEDRO, Belize, March 7 (Reuters) - Belize’s centrist government seeks a second term on Wednesday in elections which could seriously affect scope for borrowing in the tiny Central American nation, best known for its pristine beaches and the world’s second-longest coral reef.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow has turned repayments on a $550 million bond into a campaign issue and said if re-elected, his first act will be to renegotiate the terms of a bond which accounts for half the country’s debt and 40 percent of its economic output.

Belize, about the same size as Massachusetts and the 13th most indebted country in the world, is locked into a bruising schedule of rising interest rates which will cost the government $46 million over the next 12 months - 12 percent of revenues.

Ratings agencies have already pushed the country’s credit rating well into ‘junk’ territory and a painful debt restructuring could risk fresh downgrades and hurt Belize’s ability to raise funds in capital markets in the future.

Barrow has not given details of his restructuring plans, and Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca said he would meet obligations by growing the $1.25 billion, tourism-dependent economy.

Jobs and the economy are the top concerns for Belize’s 313,000-strong population - a mix of Creoles, Spanish-speaking Mestizos, Maya Indians, African-descended Garifuna and German-speaking Mennonites - along with security and oil exploration.

The United Democratic Party (UDP) goes into the election with a strong lead, controlling 25 of 31 seats in parliament, with the remaining six held by the opposition People’s United Power (PUP), voted out in 2008 after 10 years in power.

Informal opinion polls showed many voters undecided in the run-up to the vote, and many said they were disillusioned with both major parties, which have alternated in power since Belize’s independence from Britain in 1981.

For the first time, minor parties have joined forces to run under the banner of the Belize Unity Alliance and are fielding nine candidates.

In San Pedro, the biggest town on Ambergris Caye off the country’s northern coast, flags sported the UDP’s red, white and blue colors. But there were also flyers for an independent candidate, while a convoy of golf carts cruised the island’s few paved roads exhorting voters to vote for the Alliance.

“I think the UDP will win but they won’t win like four years ago, maybe they will have a majority but not the same (size),” said bartender Raul Delgado, 49.

Offshore drilling is also a hot topic locally because the Belize Barrier Reef passes just east of the island. A recent poll organized by activists showed widespread opposition to further exploration. Belize has exported oil since 2006, although output is low at around 4,000 barrels per day.

“If petroleum spreads through the sea, local people will suffer; the island lives from tourists,” said Daisy Santos, 21, who manages a souvenir shop on San Pedro’s main tourist strip.

Barrow has promised to hold a formal referendum on offshore drilling and PUP leader Fonseca, who has been in the job for just over four months, has pledged a moratorium.

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