* Belize’s 178,000 voters urged to have their say
* Centrist prime minister seeks second term
* Superbond, offshore drilling, safety are key issues
By Krista Hughes
SAN PEDRO, Belize, March 7 (Reuters) - Belizeans voted in a national election on Wednesday that could have a major impact on the borrowing ability of the tiny Central American nation, best known for its pristine beaches and the world’s second-longest coral reef.
Centrist Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is seeking a second term in power, has turned repayments on a $550 million bond into a campaign issue, and said that if re-elected, his first act will be to renegotiate the terms of the security.
The so-called “superbond” accounts for half the country’s debt, and is equivalent to 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 that 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 prompt fresh downgrades and hurt Belize’s ability to raise funds in capital markets.
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.
Maria Luz Azueta, a 51-year-old retired school teacher, said Barrow’s centrist United Democratic Party deserved to win a second term.
“They have done a good job, they have not borrowed like the last government and have improved social security,” she said, lining up to vote in a turquoise-painted concrete, sand-strewn yard at San Pedro High School. “We have to give them a proper chance.”
Azueta used to vote for the opposition People’s United Power (PUP), but said their cronyism and corruption had put her off.
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 public safety and oil exploration.
The UDP entered the election with a strong lead, controlling 25 of 31 seats in parliament, with the remaining six held by the centrist PUP, voted out in 2008 after 10 years in power.
Informal opinion polls showed many voters were undecided, and many said they have lost patience with both major parties, which have alternated in power since Belize’s independence from Britain in 1981.
Bartender Amalio Javier Carrillo said he has had enough of the UDP, which has held the local seat since 2003.
“I think the PUP should win for a change, things are not right in the community,” the 34-year-old said, pointing to the unpaved, rubbish-strewn road outside the school on Ambergris Caye island.
Offshore drilling is a hot topic locally because the Belize Barrier Reef passes just east of the island, located off the country’s northern coast.
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.
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.
The established powers face a test from minor parties, which for the first time have joined forces to run under the banner of the Belize Unity Alliance. They are fielding nine candidates.
In San Pedro, the biggest town on Ambergris Caye, 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.
Remaldo Acosta, 40, an employee of the fisheries department, did not see much support for independent or minor party candidates.
“It’s going to be tight, maybe we will have a surprise,” he said.