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.
To the sounds of Buju Banton and the echoes of the Wismar and Sun Chapman massacres, Guyana celebrates it 53rdIndependence Anniversary. Our political and economic future are as uncertain as they were 53 years ago. Guyana’s emergence from authoritarian rule in 1992 was not only a major landmark in its post-Independence history. The promises at the time were of “the dawn of a new era” and of “winner does not take all” politics. in the midst of economic reforms that promised a better life and the emergence of this newspaper that presaged freedom of expression, anticipation was high. After 27 years, half of our life as an Independent nation, hopes have been dashed. Our people have been kept in thrall to the logic of ethno-politics. No one now believes that either the APNU+AFC coalition or the PPP/C, by themselves, whichever is returned to office, has any intention of allowing this nation to unshackle the chains of domination politics.
Guyana’s political scene is thankfully uncomplicated by the ideological and political divisions sweeping many countries today, causing uncertainty and concern. But we do not live on an island and international developments do influence our views. This newspaper in its editorial yesterday high–lightedthe drift to “Europe’s illiberal future” in its editorial. The USA has already gone that way under Trump, who equated neo-fascists with anti-fascists, saying that there are good people on both sides. Australia’s right wing government has been unexpectedly returned to office. Boris Johnson, Trump’s buddy in the UK, Boris Johnson, may win the leadership of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, a neo-fascist outfit, is expected to win the UK-European Union elections. While these developments do not directly affect us, we cannot wholly eliminate potentially negative influences. They can lead todevelopments here by encouraging a hard line against the compromises that may be necessary to effect changes.
It is generally accepted that Guyana endured a period of rigged elections between 1968 and 1985. The voters’ list was a critical element in the rigging throughout the entire period. The central counting of votes at one place in every region, which were completely sealed off by the military, facilitated the removal of the bottom from the wooden ballot boxes which were secured by nails. The boxes were then filled with a pre-determined number of fake ballots, although there was a limit to the number of such ballots that could be printed, marked with an X and inserted in the ballot boxes.
Thus, a multiplicity of schemes was devised. These included retaining on the voters’ list the names of persons who had died or migrated and padding the electoral list with fictitious names, impersonating and voting for persons who were legitimately on the list, securing proxies for employees from sympathetic or intimidated employers, postal votes and other devices. As these methods were exposed, different methods were rolled out at different elections. But a flawed electoral list was always a constant. That is why the elections due in 1990 was postponed for two years, by agreement with the then Opposition after an intense campaign, in order to conduct a new registration exercise for a new voters’ list.
In English law, fair comment on a matter of public interest is allowed. Generally, it guarantees the freedom of the press to make statements on matters of public interest, as long as the statements are not made with ill-will, spite, or with intent to harm the subject of the comment. For decades, English courts have placed a higher burden on public figures to prove defamation, which includes both libel and slander. This is based on the view that if a person chooses public activity, that person must expect a higher degree of public scrutiny. For example, it is hardly likely that an English court will countenance a defamatory intent against a public figure where an allegation of conflict of interest is made on facts which are essentially true but could be capable of a more generous interpretation.
Fair comment is an ancient common law (judge made law) defence. But it was replaced in the Unites States in 1964 by a defence created in the case of New York Times v Sullivan in which the US Supreme Court decided that actual malice has to be proved to establish defamation. Since it is very difficult to prove actual malice in a journalist or a politician in the cut and thrust of journalism or politics, public life in the US has been largely liberated from the fear of defamation. While the defence of fair comment remained in the U.K. it was increasingly found to be too restrictive for adequate scrutiny of public officials. The courts of the UK have never adopted New York Times v Sullivan but began to test a more liberal approach to criticisms of public officials.
Many Guyanese are in despair arising out of the political deadlock and the failure of our politicians to resolve it. Many understand that relying only on the judiciary can only result in winners and losers. One round of the perpetual ethno-political competition would be over with the completion of the court proceedings. Whatever the outcome, the next round would come with the elections, whether held this year or next year. In this sense, the decision of the CCJ will solve nothing that is fundamental to the reality of Guyana’s existence and its challenges.
Whatever the CCJ’s decision and whenever the elections are held, Guyana’s problems will remain and would be no nearer to a solution. The economic slowdown will persist, poverty and unemployment will continue to increase, a high crime rate will perhaps get worse, corruption will grow by leaps and bounds and the ethno-political contest, an important driver of most of the above, will be no nearer to a solution.