BELIZE CITY, BELIZE - Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow won a record third term in a snap general election in the tiny English-speaking Central American country on Wednesday, after his party gained a clear majority in parliament.
Barrow, a 64-year-old lawyer, called the vote in late September more than a year ahead of schedule amid signs his political opponents were regrouping and fears generous Venezuelan aid crucial to his budget may be at risk.
With official results announced from 29 of the country's 31 constituencies, Barrow's United Democratic Party (UDP) won 19 while the main opposition People's United Party (PUP) had taken 10, election official Jennevieve Gladden said.
"It is a magnificent victory," Barrow said as he addressed party supporters in Belize City, who roared their approval. "The magnitude of this victory still hasn't properly set in."
Many voters in the country of about 350,000 people, which faces a push by neighboring Guatemala to absorb a large area of its territory, voiced apathy, seeing little scope for change whichever of the two main parties wins.
Some hoped the upstart Belize Progressive Party, which also fielded candidates, would win some seats in the national assembly.
"I'm for change. We need better people ... Both of the two major parties are corrupt," said retired teacher Lorraine Gomez, her index finger stained with purple ink after voting. Belize's $1.6 billion economy is highly dependent on tourism, as well as agricultural exports like sugar and bananas.
It also relies heavily on PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan aid program that offers fuel at discounted prices.
Since 2012, Barrow has plowed the best part of 300 million Belize dollars ($151.52 million) in Venezuelan aid into infrastructure projects including 150 new paved roads in Belize City, the country's commercial hub.
Venezuela's economic woes and the prospect of the opposition winning parliamentary elections there in December are stirring concerns that the aid to Belize could end.
"There are looming crises facing the Belizean nation and people. The PetroCaribe monies are drying up, the banking system is in trouble," PUP leader Francis Fonseca, 48, a two-time former cabinet minister and Barrow's main rival for the top job, said before the vote.
A longstanding territorial dispute with neighboring Guatemala that Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales revived during his successful campaign will also face Belize's next government.
Morales, a comedian who swept to power last month as an anti-corruption crusader, pledged to win back portions of Belize that a previous Guatemalan government argued it lawfully inherited from Spain's colonial holdings centuries ago.
"We will not be bullied and Mr. Morales needs to learn that right quick," said Barrow, whose UDP is hoping to add to the 19 seats it holds in the 31-member national assembly.
($1 = 1.9800 Belize dollars)