As is now well known, the Constitution makes no distinction between a ‘simple’ and an ‘absolute’ majority. It refers only to ‘majority.’ But the Court of Appeal ruled that such a distinction exists and under Article 106(6) an absolute majority of 34 out of 65 is required for the passage of a no confidence motion. It defined an absolute majority as half plus one. For a 65-member National Assembly, half is 32½. Since there is no half person, then 32½ has to be rounded up to 33. Then adding one will make an absolute majority of 34.
The Constitution recognizes only a ‘majority’ and a ‘vote of not less than two-third ,’ or the ‘support of not less than two-thirds.’ It does not use the word ‘majority’ when describing the two-third vote, as set out below. Article 168(1) provides that: “Save as otherwise provided by this Constitution, all questions proposed for decision in the National Assembly shall be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present and voting.”
The crisis facing Guyana, due to get worse on March 22, when the Government loses its legal authority, was not the result of the actions of evil people. Not Charrandass Persaud for voting for the no confidence motion, not the PPP for encouraging him to do so, not APNU+AFC for seeking to stay in office for as long as possible in defiance of the Constitution. The crisis has emerged from the same culture that caused the PNC to rig elections, the PPP to abandon its pledge in 1992 to implement shared governance and in 2011 to fail to seek a coalition with the Opposition. The main political parties reflect the fears, anxieties and insecurities of the two major ethnic groups, each of which feels that unless it holds political office to the exclusion of the other, the economic and physical security of its supporters will be jeopardised. Each has its own narrative of grievances against the other, recent and historic, and each is as compelling to its owner as the other.
This systemic weakness has bedeviled our political culture since 1955 when the PPP split into two parties and became in 1957 the PPP and the PNC. Ethno-political fears have since remained the most dominant feature of our political system and which undergirds all political developments. If it continues, the major ills of our society such as underdevelopment and continuing poverty, political instability, periodic crises, corruption, emigration of skilled Guyanese, and many others can never be resolved.
In a lengthy article written in 2011 before the general elections of that year, for “Freedom House” on “Countries at the Crossroads 2011: Guyana,” Assistant Professor Joan Mars, of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice of the University of Michigan-Flint, said: “Elections are constitutionally due to be held in 2011. Calls by the political opposition for shared governance have not been endorsed by the ruling PPP/C administration headed by President Jagdeo; with its consistent absolute majority in parliament, the PPP/C has had little incentive to agree to share power, but the idea may be gathering momentum as a major rallying point in the forthcoming elections.“ Assistant Professor Mars, a former practising lawyer in Guyana, concluded: “The current system of majority rule should be reformed to provide for a power-sharing model that is representative of the ethnic diversity in the population. This would reduce the adverse effects of racial voting and promote minority inclusion in governance.” This conclusion is shared by many in Guyana, and by a long– suffering electorate, whose sentiments are exploited by the main political parties when they periodically declare their support for shared or inclusive governance, especially at election time, and when they see political advantage in it.
The election results of 2011 are well known. The PPP/C was not returned with an absolute majority for the first time since 1992, but with a plurality of 32 votes over 33 for the combined Opposition. With unimaginative inflexibility, the minority PPP/C Government, true to the culture of securing dominance, did not even discuss internally the issue of a coalition arrangement with one or both of the opposition parties. It was entitled to form a minority government and did so. As expected with minority governments everywhere in the world, but perhaps not by the PPP/C, the Government fell after three years of political turmoil.
Both the President and Prime Minister accepted the outcome of the confidence vote. The President said that the Government will abide by it and “facilitate the smooth functioning of the general and regional elections…”. The Government has now changed his mind, will question the Speaker’s ruling, has reneged on his commitment that “the relevant constitutional provisions will kick in” and has grabbed a flimsy lifeline thrown to the Government by Mr. Nigel Hughes. Ridiculously puerile excuses by the Prime Minister, reflecting a desperate attempt of the Government to stay unlawfully in office in violation of all norms of democratic, constitutional and lawful conduct, were relied on.
The Speaker will now be asked to act as a policeman and investigate whether Mr. Charrandass Persaud was bribed, and also whether the majority should have been 34 and not 33, having repeatedly ruled since 2015, and having been accepted by the Government since 2011, that a majority is 33. These are ominous developments, which will bring ridicule to Guyana and to the APNU+AFC Government, derail the democratic process and have grave implications for Guyana’s future and for Parliamentary democracy.