The Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland, having declined to reverse his declaration on December 21, 2018, that the no confidence motion against the Government had been carried on a vote of 33-32 in favour, has shifted the arena of contest to the Court.
The constitutional provisions which have been automatically triggered by the passage of the no confidence motion, by now well-known, state: “106(6) The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by a vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence. (7) Notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months, or such longer period as the National Assembly shall by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the votes of all the elected members of the National Assembly determine, and shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election.”
Both the President and Prime Minister accepted the outcome of the confidence vote. The President said that the Government will abide by it and “facilitate the smooth functioning of the general and regional elections…”. The Government has now changed his mind, will question the Speaker’s ruling, has reneged on his commitment that “the relevant constitutional provisions will kick in” and has grabbed a flimsy lifeline thrown to the Government by Mr. Nigel Hughes. Ridiculously puerile excuses by the Prime Minister, reflecting a desperate attempt of the Government to stay unlawfully in office in violation of all norms of democratic, constitutional and lawful conduct, were relied on.
The Speaker will now be asked to act as a policeman and investigate whether Mr. Charrandass Persaud was bribed, and also whether the majority should have been 34 and not 33, having repeatedly ruled since 2015, and having been accepted by the Government since 2011, that a majority is 33. These are ominous developments, which will bring ridicule to Guyana and to the APNU+AFC Government, derail the democratic process and have grave implications for Guyana’s future and for Parliamentary democracy.
What transpired in the National Assembly on Friday evening was always a distinct possibility, ,with the Government’s one seat majority. Election results mean something. In 2011, the electorate told the PPP/C that it wants that party to join in a coalition to manage the affairs of the nation. The PPP/C ignored the message. The electorate removed it from office in 2015. Then it proceeded to give the APNU+AFC coalition a mere one seat majority. This conveyed another message – that the APNU+AFC coalition government should proceed cautiously and engage with the Opposition.
The coalitionlikewise ignored the message, overreached and governed as if it had a sweeping mandate. Now, like the PPP, it has paid the price. Arrogance, meaning the ignoring of the message of the electorate, rather than humility, that is, frequent consultation with, and listening to, the concerns of supporters and backbenchers, such as Mr. Charrandas Persaud, appears to be an ingrained habit of the main political parties.
At the Georgetown mayoral elections on November 30, AFC Councillor Michael Leonard was nominated by his lone colleague. Having only two members, no one seconded the nomination and it was declared to be invalid. This event, embarrassing for the AFC, symbolizes the declining from its heyday in 2005 when Raphael Trotman, Khemraj Ramjattan and Sheila Holder, all MPs representing the three parties represented in the National Assembly – the PNCR, the PPP and the WPA – decided to establish the AFC. There was great anticipation by many who had become jaded with the main political parties, the PPP and the PNCR. Adding to the expectation was the fact that the landscape was arid. The WPA, the last party of significance that had attracted a degree of popular support, had been established in 1974. However, by the time free and fair elections returned in 1992, it had lost traction and failed to achieve significant electoral support. It obtained 2.4 percent in 2001, which it contested with the Guyana Action Party. The TUF, which was established in 1960, obtained 16 percent support at the 1961 elections. Returning at the 1980, after an absence during the 1970s, it could only persuade 2.9 percent of the electorate to support it. At the local government elections recently held, the AFC secured only 3.9 percent support, after having obtained 10 percent in the 2011 general elections.
The AFC is at a fork in the road. Logic would suggest that it should take the bend leading to independence. Necessity for survival, as the AFC would perceive it, would force it to take the bend leading to further subservience to APNU. At the time when the AFC was established, the nature of the Guyanese electorate was changing. The decrease in the Indian population and the growth of the Amerindian and Mixed populations, together with the dominance of ethnic considerations in politics, were having an impact on voting patterns. Most important, the middle class which had been decimated by impoverishment and migration in the 1970s and 1980s had grown again and was impatient with ethnic politics and insufficiently robust economic growth, which was possible as the latter Hoyte and early Jagan years had shown. The economic benefits which were later available to business did not reach the rungs of emerging entrepreneurs, while they saw favoured ones benefiting handsomely from ‘connections.’
Prior to the announcement of the date for local government elections, there was speculation, particularly in Opposition circles, that the Government would find reasons not to hold the elections. It was believed that the Government had performed so badly that it would suffer significant losses and would not want to expose its flank, now that general elections are only two years away. The announcement in July by the Minister of Communities, Mr. Ronald Bulkan, that local government elections will be held on November 12 killed that speculation. The more significant news came later. It was reported that APNU and the AFC could not agree on a joint slate for the elections and would be going to the electorate separately. The long term viability of the coalition was put on the table. But observers welcomed the opportunity that it would give some indication of the relative strengths of the political parties, not by the number of seats they win, because of the element of the first past the post system in the elections, but by the number of votes that they obtain. Caution would have to be exercised in such assessments because of the expected low turnout, unless polls are conducted to determine the percentage turnout of supporters of each of the three contesting parties. Polls such as these complicated and are not conducted in Guyana.
The campaign has not met with great public enthusiasm. The coalition has suffered criticism from a poor economy, reports of corruption and bad governance for the Auditor General’s Report and the absence of President Granger, who has been receiving medical attention in Cuba over the past two weeks. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, known as a dynamic election campaigner while in the PPP, has had to concentrate in rejuvenating the flagging fortunes of the AFC, which has been receiving very small attendances at its public meetings. It might well be that these factors will result in an especially low turnout of the governing parties’ supporters and will suppress their overall results. PNC/PNCR/APNU supporters have traditionally stayed away from the polls since the 1979 Referendum when wishing to express their disapproval.