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.
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.
If elections are not held on or before September 18, as appears likely, the Government will fall over a constitutional precipice which is fast approaching. According to Vice President Khemraj Ramjattan, Minister of Public security, speaking on a podcast on Wednesday last, if the Gecom Chair advises the President that free and fair elections cannot be held without a new electoral list compiled by house to house registration, the President will have no choice but to fix a date for elections when it is estimated that registration is expected to be concluded. That date is December 25, according to Gecom’s lawyer, advising the CCJ.
In relation to whether elections will held on or before the due date of September 18, VP Ramjattan said on Wednesday last, “I doubt it, I seriously doubt it.” While VP Ramjattan stressed that it was his opinion, such an opinion coming from a Vice President of Guyana, even before a Chair of Gecom is appointed and forms an opinion on the list, carries great weight. When asked about the status of the Government after September 18, he said that the doctrine of necessity will apply so that the Government would be lawfully in power and its decisions would be lawful. Accordingly, any Government can deliberately refuse or fail to hold elections, claim the right to do so under the doctrine of necessity, and lawfully stay in office! Such twisted logic has sadly become part of the degenerated discourse on our constitution and its interpretation.
President Granger last Friday said that “the Government is conducting its affairs in accordance with the Constitution and with respect for the rule of law.” He sought to convince the nation that it was the Speaker of the National Assembly who directed the Government’s approach to the court and that the cooperation of the Opposition is necessary for credible elections. He created a constitutional mandate for the Elections Commission in fixing a date for elections. He reiterated that the National Assembly is competent to extend the time for holding elections. The President said that there is no cause for “alarm or anxiety.” The Office of the Leader of the Opposition issued a statement contradicting the President’s assertions point by point. The President places the burden for resolving the crisis on everyone but himself and the Government.
Notwithstanding the President’s use of selected articles of the Constitution to justify his untenable views as to the current state of affairs, created by the Government’s failure to fix a date for elections before March 21, the Government becomes illegal on March 22. One of two things ought to have happened by March 21, namely, elections ought to have been held, or the life of the National Assembly extended. Neither occurred, despite the decision of the Chief Justice (ag) that elections have to be held in three months after December 21, the date of passage of the no confidence motion. The Government insists that it has a right to be heard in Court and in doing so, insists that it has a right to violate the Constitution while awaiting the Court’s verdict. President Granger blithely ignores the nation’s right to elections and relies on the invented veto which he has accorded to the Elections Commission.