Political tensions in Guyana took a turn for the worst over the past two weeks. This has resulted from the appointment by President Granger of former Justice James Patterson as Chairman of the Elections Commission. Claiming that the third set of names contained no one who was fit and proper as required by the Constitution, the President, rejecting the names, utilized the constitutional proviso that enabled him to appoint a judge or former judge or a person qualified to be a judge.
Mr. James Patterson may not have been the President’s first choice. The appearance of Major General (ret’d) Joe Singh’s name among the final six gave some hope that the matter would be resolved without resort to the proviso. Those who know the retired Major-General suggest that he would not have allowed his name to go forward if there was any possibility that it would be rejected as not fit and proper. His sudden resignation from all government posts suggest that an undertaking, which may have been given to him, had been violated.
For more than twenty years the task of choosing a chairperson of the Elections Commission (GECOM) was without controversy. With the resignation of Dr. Steve Surujballi the President invited the Leader of the Opposition to submit a list of six, not unacceptable, names under article 161 of the constitution, which was done in December, 2016. The article requires the chair to be a judge, a former judge or a person qualified to be a judge (the “judge category”) or a fit and proper person. The President rejected the list in its entirety. He first suggested that only a person in the ‘judge category’ could be appointed but later amended that to indicate that preference must be given to the ‘judge’ category. The President also stated that all the names on the list must be acceptable and if one is not, he is entitled to reject the entire list.
At the invitation of the President, the Leader of the Opposition submitted a second list. This was also rejected by the President. The Leader of the Opposition continued the policy of engagement and indicated that he will submit a third list. However, by that time, Mr. Marcel Gaskin, of a new organization called RISE, formed to promote constitutional reform, brought legal-constitutional proceedings seeking answers to four questions. These were: whether the list must include a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge; whether the President must state reasons for deeming each of the six names unacceptable; whether the President is obliged to select a person unless he has decided that the persons are unacceptable; whether one person being unacceptable renders the whole list unacceptable. The Guyana Bar Association, entered a case as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) and made submissions. The case was heard before Chief Justice (ag) George-Wiltshire, who announced an oral decision on July 17. The 33-page written decision became available last week.
I adopt the sentiments of Lincoln Lewis, who writes frequently on constitutional matters. He said in last Sunday’s Chronicle: “We are facing a very serious situation and what I am about to say is intended to right a ship, veering wildly off course and posing dire implications for the rule of law, the legitimacy of the executive, and protecting the well-being of the society.” Mr. Lewis cited the following instances where the authority of the executive and limits of the President have been exceeded: 1. The termination of leases in the MMA; 2. (Mis)Interpretation of criteria for Gecom chair; 3. The termination of Red House lease; 4. Seeking to possess the property of Clarissa Riehl; 5. Instructions given to the Police Service Commission not to act on a list for promotions. While Mr. Lewis’s did not explicitly say so, his conclusion is that the court rulings suggest that the constitution is being violated.
A strong editorial in the Stabroek News of August 21 did not mince words. Additional violations were cited in extenso:”…the directive issued by Minister of State Joe Harmon on June 26 to the Police Service Commission (PSC) in the name of President Granger for the halting of the police promotions process must be condemned as an attack on constitutionalism….Given President Granger’s flawed reading of the constitutional provisions relating to the appointment of a Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission, his unconscionable delay in acting upon the recommendations of the Judicial Service Commission and the May 2015 attempt by Minister Simona Broomes to issue an instruction to the Public Service Commission, which was later ruled ultra vires by the High Court, a pattern of highly worrying behavior has emerged. It is clear that when it suits the President and the government to ignore constitutional precepts – in this case the vital insulating of service commissions – it is prepared to do so. Two and a half years into its term of office, this tendency is rife with jeopardies to constitutional rule and the rule of law. It also adds to the unpleasant legend of the PNC’s undemocratic rule of the 70s and 80s, the flying of colours of the party over the Guyana Court of Appeal and the entrenching of paramountcy of the party as enshrined in the Sophia Declaration.”
Two Fridays ago a seminar on Constitutional Reform the Process, was held at the University of Guyana. The event, which was well attended, was organized by the Carter Centre and facilitated by the British High Commission. The PPP and a cross-section of civil society were represented, but conspicuously absent was any APNU or AFC party or Government representatives. The discourse focused on why there should be constitutional reform and the process by which it should be undertaken. The event was not intended to have a formal conclusion but to have Guyanese ownership.
Many ills of the society that needed redress were identified. There were concerns that elected officials were interfering in the democratic right to protest, of political intermeddling in Amerindian affairs, of the need for equity in the society, of implementing the existing provisions of the Constitution, of educating young people about the issues, and everything in between. The debate around the issues raised was lively and energetic. The fact that the audience remained attentive and engaged throughout the three-hour event suggested that there is much interest in constitutional reform and scope for more debate.
Guyana has had a long history of struggle for electoral democracy. We have seen at first hand the devastating impact of manipulated elections on a country’s development and the psyche of a people. As it is, it will take several generations in the future for the suspicions and accusations over elections to disappear. It is not something that Guyana needs ever again.
Beginning in 1990 there were many reforms which brought about free and fair elections in Guyana. The two most fundamental reforms were an agreed Chair of the Elections Commission and counting of the votes at the place of poll. These were, of course, supplemented by many other laws, regulations and practices that were agreed to between the two main political parties and enshrined in the Constitution or in the Representation of the People Act.