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Belize elects opposition leader to succeed retiring prime minister

BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Belize voters overwhelmingly elected center-left opposition leader Johnny Briceno to succeed longtime Prime Minister Dean Barrow in Wednesday’s election as the Central American nation seeks to revive an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The leader of Barrow’s conservative United Democratic Party (UDP), Patrick Faber, conceded defeat after the election in Belize, one of the few countries that still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which quickly congratulated Briceno.

Briceno’s People’s United Party (PUP) won 26 of 31 parliamentary seats, compared with five for the UDP, the Elections & Boundaries Department said on Thursday.

“Today begins the work of putting the country on the path of recovery in the short term, and growth in the medium and long term,” Briceno said in a televised speech late on Wednesday. He was sworn in on Thursday as prime minister of the country of about 400,000 people.

Barrow, who did not seek re-election, had been prime minister for more than 12 years.

Despite the UDP’s heavy defeat, Barrow’s legacy lives on through his sister Denise Barrow and son Shyne, both of whom were elected to parliament for the party.

The election came at a time of widespread discontent over the state of Belize’s economy, which was in the doldrums long before measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus decimated tourism, the main driver of prosperity.

Voters cheered the PUP’s win on Thursday, saying they were ready for a change after Barrow.

“I feel happy and relieved that many people flipped (parties) because it just shows how desperately we want a change,” said Halle Popper, a teacher.

The Caribbean country’s economy shrank on an annual basis in every quarter from April to June last year through to the second quarter of 2020, the latest period for which data is available, according to government statistics.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen sent congratulations to Briceno early on Thursday, underlining the importance of the small East Asian country’s diplomatic connection to Belize.

Belize is one of a dwindling number of countries that still recognizes self-ruled Taiwan, which is claimed by China. Over the past few years, China has peeled away countries in Central America that previously recognized Taiwan, including Panama in 2017 and El Salvador in 2018.

In his concession speech, Faber celebrated the democratic process in the former British colony.

“While there were winners and losers, the democracy that we have continued to enjoy throughout the life of this great young nation, is by far the greatest winner today,” he said.

Reporting by Jose Sanchez; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney

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