In the critical years of the 1970s and 1980s, three major issues engaged the attention of my political colleagues – restore democracy, advance social progress and avoid civil strife. We firmly believed that Guyana could make no progress unless full democracy through free and fair elections were restored. Our analysis was that it was the lack of internal democracy that was responsible for what we then saw as the failure of the economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s to lead to economic and social progress. The PPP saw this and gave a lifeline to the PNC more than once. The most notable was the National Patriotic Front under which, after free and fair elections, the largest political party would take the prime ministership and the second largest the executive presidency. The PNC would not hear of it. Even if democracy had not been restored in 1992, developments in the world would have ensured that by today we would have been living in a democratic Guyana.
The victory of democracy in 1992 has resulted in substantial economic and social progress for Guyana. But this progress gave rise to other problems. The incipient problems of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability exploded, with little effort to resolve them. Also, the intractable issue of ethno-political domination was put aside because of the unremitting, and sometimes violent opposition of the PNC, as well as some degree of triumphalism within the PPP. Attempts to work through and resolve differences between the PPP government and Desmond Hoyte and later Robert Corbin failed. The PPP government was mainly responsible. When the real opportunity of embracing unity presented itself in 2011, the PPP did not even consider forming a coalition with APNU. The reticence today of both parties in embracing constitutional reform which would diminish the impact of ethno-politics is the next hurdle the Guyanese people have to overcome.
Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, of “Hall Yuh Ass” fame, responded to my article last Sunday, entitled, “To preserve itself, the AFC must resign from the Government,” with the following epithets – “nonsensical;” “vacuous chatter;” “idiotic;” “we are not going to block [the] chatterati;” “foolish;” “Ralph kept his mouth shut then he got shelved now he is talking plenty;” “if he wants to be a politician he should go form a party then know what it is;” “these fellas love to talk from a distance like parrot, you know parrot telling donkey how to bat but stays up in the tree, they want to stay up in the tree and not do the batting themselves, you write exactly what I say there.” Sadly, by succumbing to the temptation of the politics of abuse, Mr. Ramjattan exposes the inability of the AFC to answer serious questions about its political posture.
Would you believe that this was the same Khemraj Ramjattan who embraced me at the post 2015 election celebration at the Pegasus Hotel in congratulation for what he believed was my contribution to the victory of the APNU+AFC coalition? Well, he did. At the same event, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo thanked me in the presence of several persons. Now Minister Ramjattan is abusive and PM Nagamootoo uses the Chronicle to denigrate me.
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.”