By virtue of the now familiar Article 106(7) of the Constitution of Guyana, elections are due to be held within three months of the passage of a no confidence motion in the National Assembly on December 21, 2018, that is, by the end of March. The court has no power to alter the Constitution by extending the time. Only the National Assembly, by a two-third majority, can do so.
The first step after the passage of the no confidence motion ought to have been a directive from the President to the Chair of the Elections Commission to provide a timetable for the holding of elections before the end of March, 2019. This is what the Opposition Leader, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, ought to have insisted on at his meeting with President Granger on January 9. Instead the Opposition allowed itself to be ensnared in a charade of fruitless consultation with the Elections Commission. That it would have been fruitless was later signaled by a chorus that a new electoral list was neededand by a delay in the meeting. The most recent, flimsy, excuses are that time is needed for the training of elections day staff and the mobilization of supplies. These can be accomplished in weeks. Existing trained staff for local government elections only need to be upgraded and supplies can be acquired by emergency procurement.
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.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland, having declined to reverse his declaration on December 21, 2018, that the no confidence motion against the Government had been carried on a vote of 33-32 in favour, has shifted the arena of contest to the Court.
The constitutional provisions which have been automatically triggered by the passage of the no confidence motion, by now well-known, state: “106(6) The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by a vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence. (7) Notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months, or such longer period as the National Assembly shall by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the votes of all the elected members of the National Assembly determine, and shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election.”
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.
At the Georgetown mayoral elections on November 30, AFC Councillor Michael Leonard was nominated by his lone colleague. Having only two members, no one seconded the nomination and it was declared to be invalid. This event, embarrassing for the AFC, symbolizes the declining from its heyday in 2005 when Raphael Trotman, Khemraj Ramjattan and Sheila Holder, all MPs representing the three parties represented in the National Assembly – the PNCR, the PPP and the WPA – decided to establish the AFC. There was great anticipation by many who had become jaded with the main political parties, the PPP and the PNCR. Adding to the expectation was the fact that the landscape was arid. The WPA, the last party of significance that had attracted a degree of popular support, had been established in 1974. However, by the time free and fair elections returned in 1992, it had lost traction and failed to achieve significant electoral support. It obtained 2.4 percent in 2001, which it contested with the Guyana Action Party. The TUF, which was established in 1960, obtained 16 percent support at the 1961 elections. Returning at the 1980, after an absence during the 1970s, it could only persuade 2.9 percent of the electorate to support it. At the local government elections recently held, the AFC secured only 3.9 percent support, after having obtained 10 percent in the 2011 general elections.
The AFC is at a fork in the road. Logic would suggest that it should take the bend leading to independence. Necessity for survival, as the AFC would perceive it, would force it to take the bend leading to further subservience to APNU. At the time when the AFC was established, the nature of the Guyanese electorate was changing. The decrease in the Indian population and the growth of the Amerindian and Mixed populations, together with the dominance of ethnic considerations in politics, were having an impact on voting patterns. Most important, the middle class which had been decimated by impoverishment and migration in the 1970s and 1980s had grown again and was impatient with ethnic politics and insufficiently robust economic growth, which was possible as the latter Hoyte and early Jagan years had shown. The economic benefits which were later available to business did not reach the rungs of emerging entrepreneurs, while they saw favoured ones benefiting handsomely from ‘connections.’