It was on October 9, 1953, 66 years ago last week, that the Conservative British Government of Winston Churchill suspended what was known as British Guiana’s Waddington Constitution. It did so by passing an Order in Council which it enforced by sending to British Guiana an invasion army of 700 British troops. The intention was not merely to ensure that the 133-day old Government left office. It was to smash the democratic opening that British Guiana had achieved by destroying the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) which had spearheaded the campaign for universal adult suffrage with the ultimate objective of ending colonial rule. The PPP was democratic socialist, progressive, militant, impatient and intent on eliminating the intense poverty that gripped the majority of the Guianese people. The British Government had been persuaded by local reactionary forces that had travelled to London after the April elections in which the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats, that the PPP represented the forces represented the existential threat of ‘international communism.’
The Waddington Constitution that the British Government suspended had granted universal adult suffrage to British Guiana for the first time, eliminating property qualifications. It also allowed a modest measure of democratic rule by permitting an elected Legislative Council and a Cabinet comprising Ministers appointed by the party commanding the majority of votes. The PPP formed that Government, which had little authority, having to defer to the Executive Council of unelected officials headed by the British Governor. This did not stop the PPP Government from immediately setting about to alleviate the atrocious conditions of workers.
October 5, 1992, the date of the return to democracy after a quarter of a century, promised not only a new era of democracy, but of winner-does-not-take-all politics. The first half of the equation has been largely achieved, though still on shaky ground. The second half, recognized as essential for political stability and economic and social progress, has been all but been abandoned. And it has spawned the political instability that now prevails.
Without an overarching and inspiring political direction, for most Guyanese, the choice for March 2 is already made. In accordance with long standing tradition, rooted in the ethno-political dimensions of our politics, most Guyanese will vote for either the PPP/C or the APNU+AFC. While Guyana has special historical circumstances which determine the bases of the political choices made by the vast majority of voters, in most democratic countries, in and out of the Caribbean, the choices are also between two main political parties, but ideologically, between social democratic/liberal and conservative. Similar circumstances exist in most of the Caribbean although distinguishing their ideological orientation is sometimes difficult.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has ruled that the Guyana National Assembly “properly passed” a no confidence motion (NCM) against the Government on December 21. Thereupon, the clear provisions of Article 106 became “engaged.” The Court explained that Article 106 is clear and it is the responsibility of the constitutional actors in Guyana, including GECOM, to honour them. The Court said that elections should have been held since March 21, 2018, but was under pause because of the court cases. “But this Court rendered its decision on 18 June, 2019. There is no appeal from that judgment.”
In very clear language, quoted above and below, the Court said that while it is not the responsibility of the Court to fix a date for elections, it must be held in accordance with Article 106 of the Constitution. The ruling stated: “It is not, for example, the role of the Court to establish a date by or on which elections must be held, or to lay down timelines or deadlines that, in principle, are the preserve of political actors guided by constitutional imperatives. The Court must assume that these bodies and personages will exercise their responsibilities with integrity and in keeping with the unambiguous provisions of the Constitution bearing in mind that the no confidence motion was validly passed as long ago as 21 December 2018.” The complaints by Opposition lawyers about the CCJ not ordering elections by a certain date is not well founded. The Court did just that, but not in so many words.
At the last two hearings of the cases before the CCJ, the clear preference was expressed by the Court for a political resolution of the NCM (no confidence motion) case. The Court, like everyone else, is fully cognizant of the political implications of any consequential order, especially having regard to the disputes over the voters’ list. At the last sitting of the Court, the President, Justice Adrian Saunders, expressed exasperation that the parties did not even meet, much less have discussions on the way forward. The Court is obviously anxious that what appears to be an explosively political matter should have a political solution which would satisfy all parties, rather than orders by the Court which may satisfy no one or only one. At the time of writing the President and Leader of the Opposition have not met.
The legal challenges by APNU+AFC initially appeared to be only a play for time. It was successful because the Government has obtained several additional months of life. More time is expected but even more is being demanded. A new voters’ list by house to house registration is demanded on the basis of vastly exaggerated and unproved claims about alleged defects in the list. These claims are that the list is bloated by 200,000 names and 18-year olds are not registered. This is the same list that was used for the recent local government (LGE) elections and there were no complaints. 18-year olds were extracted from the national register which registers persons from the age of 14 for the list used for the LGE. The same will apply for the voters list for new elections. Claims and Objections (C&O) will take care of any omissions. The latest play for time is that the list will not be ready until December 25. Both the 1990 and 1997 house to house registration took approximately eighteen months. On the evidence of the past, therefore, once house to house registration starts, there will be no elections until the end of 2020, if then.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has ruled in two of the most important constitutional cases that have engaged its attention in its ten-year history. The cases from Guyana have their origins in Guyana’s troubled political history and struggle for ethno-political dominance. In the first case the CCJ decided that the appointment by President Granger of the Chair of the Elections Commission on October 19, 2017, violated the Constitution. In the second case, it decided that the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21, 2018, in a 33 to 32 vote, was lawful and valid.
President Granger declared that the Government accepted the decision but insisted that the appointment of the Chair of GECOM was not flawed, and if it was, the CCJ must let him know what the flaw is. The CCJ had already noted that President did not reveal what were the flaws in the 18 names presented to him by the Leader of the Opposition for appointment as Chair of the Elections Commission. In any event, courts do not respond to political interrogation, and it is the job of the Attorney General to advise His Excellency.