At her swearing in as Chair of Gecom on July 29, 2019, Justice Claudette Singh said that she will follow the law. But what is the law? Elections by September 18? The Supreme Court certainly thought so. In order to correct misreporting in connection with preliminary deliberations in the matter of Christopher Ram v Chief Election Officer and others, the Supreme Court of Judicature Protocols and Communications Unit issued a Press Release on Wednesday 24 July which said: “The High Court confirmed that the Chief Justice (ag) stated that the consequential orders of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) indicate that elections should be held by September 18, 2019, or such longer period as the National Assembly determines.”
This view accords with the judgments of the CCJ in the consolidated appeals on the no confidence motion in which the CCJ gave its judgment on June 18 and consequential orders on July 12. In its July 12 decision the CCJ said: “Given the passage of the no confidence motion on 21 December 2018 a general election should have been held in Guyana by 21 March unless a two thirds majority in the National Assembly had resolved to extend that period. The National Assembly is yet to extend that period. The filing of the court proceedings in January challenging the validity of the no confidence vote effectively placed matters on pause, but this court rendered its decision on 18 June 2019.” No deconstruction of this statement is necessary to conclude that the CCJ is saying that time, which was paused by the court actions, began to run once again on 18 June 2019.
The CCJ continued: “Article 106 of the Constitution invests in the President and the National Assembly (and implicitly in GECOM), responsibilities that impact on the precise timing of the elections which must be held.” The Court described the setting of the date for elections as “the preserve of political actors guided by constitutional imperatives.” In conclusion on this aspect the Court said: “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.”
No rational person can fail to conclude by these clear and telling words that the CCJ placed no responsibility on the Leader of the Opposition for compliance with article 106; that the CCJ fixed the 18 June 2018 as the countdown date to the September 18 deadline for elections, unless extended by the National Assembly; that the “bodies and personages” to exercise their responsibilities with “integrity” are named as the President, the National Assembly and GECOM; that since the no confidence motion was passed as long ago as 21 December 2018, elections are long overdue.
The notion that is now being floated is that the CCJ has not fixed a date for elections and that, somehow, that date is still open. Those who promote this notion offer no way out of the constitutional conundrum, considering that article 106 provides a timeline and the CCJ ruled on 18 June. They offer no answer, in the absence of an extension of time by the National Assembly, as to the date when elections must be held. Others argue that it is incumbent on the Leader of the Opposition to display “integrity” by supporting an extension of the time for the holding of elections, even though the CCJ placed no such responsibility on him. Those who advocate discussions between the President and Leader of the Opposition, or who interpret the CCJ’s decision to having suggested that discussions be conducted, must explain what happens if the parties do not engage in such discussions, or if discussions take place and there is no agreement.
On past practice, the Chair of GECOM is usually asked to indicate the earliest date on which GECOM would be in a position to conduct elections. In preparing to give the answer, if asked, Justice Singh’s first task will be to determine whether a new list of voters is required or whether a revision of the current list by claims and objections would be adequate, as indicated by the Chief Election Officer. She will no doubt want to consider the evidence of “bloating” against the background that under the Constitution, residence in Guyana is not a qualification for voting in elections and, therefore, not a reason to delete a name from the list of electors. Her vote would be decisive. If Justice Singh supports house to house registration for a new list and GECOM so votes, she will have to explain to the nation how she expects to accomplish lawful elections a year or so from now, when the Leader of the Opposition has vowed not to agree to an extension of time.
While the September 18 deadline for elections and the validity of the house to house registration are issues in the matter now before Chief Justice (ag) Roxane George, Justice Singh could well proceed with her decision and adjust it at a later stage, if necessary. Awaiting the courts is what has led us to this impasse.