BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Belize voted on Wednesday for a new prime minister to replace Dean Barrow, who is stepping down after more than a dozen years in charge as the Central American country grapples with an economic slump deepened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Barrow's conservative United Democratic Party (UDP) is now in the hands of Patrick Faber, who is battling its traditional center-left adversary, the People's United Party (PUP), to secure a fourth consecutive UDP term in office.
Faber faces a tough contest against PUP leader, former deputy prime minister Johnny Briceno, with discontent widespread over the economy, which was in the doldrums long before the coronavirus battered tourism, the main driver of prosperity.
"The UDP has been in power for a long time," Marvin Virula, 34, said after voting in Cayo District in western Belize. "The youth want to see a change."
The Caribbean country's economy shrank on an annual basis in every quarter from April-June last year through to the second quarter of 2020, the latest period for which data is available, according to government statistics.
Demois Williams, 28, a graphic designer from Belize City who recently lost her job in the hotel industry, said she hoped the election would shake up the political scene and put an end to what she described as the "oligarchy" of the last 15 years.
"For too long the common electorate has sat at the sidelines of poverty, watching our (parliament) mirror a monarchy that older generations, still stuck in a neo-colonial society, elected," said Williams, who plans to vote for a third party.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) and will close at 6 p.m. Voters wore face masks, which are mandatory in public with hefty fines for anyone caught not wearing one.
An election-night curfew takes effect at 8 p.m. to help curb the spread of coronavirus, although people already in line by that time will be allowed to cast their ballots, police said.
Results will roll in overnight with an announcement of the winner expected early on Thursday.
The prolonged downturn has left many voters in Belize, which has a population of just 400,000, fighting poverty. The main international airport only reopened last month, giving little time for the economy to recover ahead of the election.
Scandals and graft allegations have taken the shine off Barrow's record, and grumbling about nepotism have been fed by the fact his sister is running to succeed him in parliament, while a son, a former convict, is also on the UDP ticket.
Reliable polls are few and far between in the former British colony, making the outcome of the vote hard to predict.
(Reporting by Jose Sanchez; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Heinrich)
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