When Justice Claudette Singh was sworn in, she reminded us that when she was on the bench she was dubbed “The Iron Lady.” The newly appointed Chair of Gecom obviously intended to convey to the public that she was a decisive person, who tolerated neither nonsense nor delaying tactics. It was a clear indication that she intended to sweep away the cobwebs of obfuscation, chop a path through the forest of gridlock using “the law and nothing else”- her words. Now is the time. Gecom, over which Justice Singh has a decisive, one vote authority, must not be allowed to dance to the tune of delay, which everything that has happened since December 21 is about. There is probably no democratic country in the world in which a no confidence vote was passed against the Government that has failed to hold elections after eight months. And our argument in Guyana is on the list of electors.
In countries with a Westminster constitution as a significant characteristic, as in Guyana, where the executive sits in the Parliament, there is a long-standing convention that when a no confidence motion is passed against the Government, elections are promptly held. In 2001 the Parliament accepted the recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission to include article 106 in the Constitution to provide for elections in three months if a no confidence motion is passed. The Parliament must have taken into consideration that if there is no constitutional provision and a no confidence motion is passed, the Government might ignore it. The Parliament also provided for the resignation of the Cabinet. The obvious reason was to institutionalise the caretaker status of the Government by confining the Government to largely administrative functions until the elections are held. In the absence of the Cabinet no major decisions could be taken.
The Chief Justice ruled last week in the case brought by Christopher Ram in connection with the house to house registration that it is unlawful to remove names from the registration list during the current exercise merely because they are not present at the addresses or had migrated. The stated objective of the house to house registration was to remove the names from what was described as a list ‘bloated’ by 200,000 names. It was not quite clear how the ‘bloating’ occurred, or how the figure of 200,000 was conjured up, but it was assumed that these were persons who had died or migrated.
The Attorney General described the decision of the Chief Justice as a “statement” regarding the removal of persons from the National Register of Registrants and as more like a “suggestion” to the Guyana Elections Commission. It is not an “order,” he said, and the Chief Justice could not have intended to direct GECOM. This must be a hint to GECOM that it can ignore the Chief Justice’s decision and continue the house to house registration.
Apart from recognizing its ‘interim’ status, the Government acknowledges no other consequence of the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21, after it members challenged the Opposition PPP to ‘bring it on.’ Attorney General Basil Williams said at a symposium at the Marriot Hotel sponsored by AmCham during last week said that Guyana is not geared for a no confidence motion. He also repeated at that event what he has said, in and out of court, that the Caribbean Court of Justice has not fixed a date for elections, implying that such a date is at large and will be fixed when house to house registration is complete. The Attorney General plucked out of the context of Article 106 that the Government shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election and appeared to indicate that this applies to whenever “the election” is held. In fact, “the election” refers to “an election within three months” which shall be held after the Government’s defeat on a no confidence motion.
To this melee of confusion, the President says that he doesn’t fix a date for, and has nothing to do with, elections; that it is Gecom’s responsibility to fix the date and to manage the elections. But the President then summoned the constitutionally independent body to his office for discussions in the absence of the Leader of the Opposition and then, after the meeting with Gecom on August 15, makes a statement reeking of intimidation: “We will accept any formula or any rule or any decision which satisfies the requirement of a credible election.” The President, the Attorney General and other Government spokespersons have said repeatedly that only a house to house registration will produce a credible list of voters. So what will the President do if in his view the decision of Gecom does not satisfy the requirement of a credible election, that is to say, does not uphold its decision to continue and complete the house to house registration to create a new voters’ list?
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.
Grumbles of dissatisfaction were heard from the PPP/C Government when the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruled against the Government and in favour of Trinidad Cement Limited (TCL) in 2009. TCL had taken the Guyana Government to the CCJ for violating the Treaty of Chaguaramas by not seeking COTED’s permission prior to importing cement from outside the Region. The Court found in favour of TCL but the Government of Guyana got off by the skin of its teeth on the claim by TCL of US$250 million damages. The PPP/C Government was held liable for several other violations of the Treaty. In the case of the Surinam company, Rudisa, which challenged at the CCJ the imposition of an ‘environmental’ tax on plastic bottles, the CCJ ordered the Guyana Government in 2014 to pay Rudisa US$6 million in damages. In 2017 in a similar case filed during the PPP’s term of office the CCJ ordered the Guyana Government to pay S. M. Jaleel & Co. Ltd., a Trinidad company, the ‘environmental’ tax unlawfully collected being US$11 million with interest. A future PPP/C Government will hopefully understand in future that there are consequences if it blithely ignores laws and treaties. It would have to adjust to an increasingly independent judicial culture. But emerging from an authoritarian political and judicial culture, this was not supposed to happen, even in strictly commercial matters which had no political implications.
Many PPP leaders and supporters were grossly disappointed when the CCJ overruled the decision in the Attorney General v Richardson case in which the Court of Appeal had decided that the constitutional provision limiting a president to two terms was unconstitutional. The CCJ decided that the provision did not violate the constitution. The effect of the decision was that the former President Jagdeo could not be nominated for a third term as president. The CCJ demonstrated that it was prepared to cut through the dense thicket of esoteric, interpretative, dicta and adopt a purposive determination to reflect the intent of the constitution.