The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has already given a clear indication of its liberal and purposive attitude to constitutional interpretation in the Richardson case last year in which the constitutionality of the two-term presidential limit was challenged. Despite a majority Court of Appeal decision declaring the amendment to the Constitution limiting a President to two terms, and an apparently unassailable argument before the CCJ, supporting the Court of Appeal’s decision, the CCJ would have none of it. In a majority decision, it upheld the amendment thereby sparing Guyanese the potential of a life President, which the amendment was designed to prevent.
In the hearings last week, the two cases heard were the challenges to the appointment of the Chairman of the Elections Commission and to the validity of the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21 last which required the Government to call elections by March 21 but which it had steadfastly refused to do on the flimsy argument that it was awaiting rulings from the court.
Challenges to transparency in Government have attracted public comment in the past two weeks. I make no allegation or judgment on recent events since they are based only on newspaper reports. But apart from these recent matters, allegations of corruption and nepotism are to be expected in the absence of strict and enforceable rules, which have been promised by the Government. These challenges have been occurring since Guyana gained its Independence and will continue until Governments take steps to enforce transparency and accountability.
There is clearly no across the board political appetite for steps to curb corruption and nepotism. The PPP/C came to office in 1992 with one of its major promises being the elimination of corruption. It brought auditor general’s reports, which had been lagging for seven years up to date. It established a more transparent system of procurement. It implemented the Integrity Commission. However, in the ensuing twenty years, with the vast increase in public and infrastructure spending, corruption escalated to unimaginable proportions in every sphere of society. It became possible to grease palms to speed up or obtain services. Whatever the reason, so sensitive was the PPP/C Government to allegations of corruption, that when I described it as ‘pervasive’ in 2012 and called for additional steps to deal with it, I was severely attacked and forced to resign.
As is now well known, the Constitution makes no distinction between a ‘simple’ and an ‘absolute’ majority. It refers only to ‘majority.’ But the Court of Appeal ruled that such a distinction exists and under Article 106(6) an absolute majority of 34 out of 65 is required for the passage of a no confidence motion. It defined an absolute majority as half plus one. For a 65-member National Assembly, half is 32½. Since there is no half person, then 32½ has to be rounded up to 33. Then adding one will make an absolute majority of 34.
The Constitution recognizes only a ‘majority’ and a ‘vote of not less than two-third ,’ or the ‘support of not less than two-thirds.’ It does not use the word ‘majority’ when describing the two-third vote, as set out below. Article 168(1) provides that: “Save as otherwise provided by this Constitution, all questions proposed for decision in the National Assembly shall be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present and voting.”
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.
The crisis facing Guyana, due to get worse on March 22, when the Government loses its legal authority, was not the result of the actions of evil people. Not Charrandass Persaud for voting for the no confidence motion, not the PPP for encouraging him to do so, not APNU+AFC for seeking to stay in office for as long as possible in defiance of the Constitution. The crisis has emerged from the same culture that caused the PNC to rig elections, the PPP to abandon its pledge in 1992 to implement shared governance and in 2011 to fail to seek a coalition with the Opposition. The main political parties reflect the fears, anxieties and insecurities of the two major ethnic groups, each of which feels that unless it holds political office to the exclusion of the other, the economic and physical security of its supporters will be jeopardised. Each has its own narrative of grievances against the other, recent and historic, and each is as compelling to its owner as the other.
This systemic weakness has bedeviled our political culture since 1955 when the PPP split into two parties and became in 1957 the PPP and the PNC. Ethno-political fears have since remained the most dominant feature of our political system and which undergirds all political developments. If it continues, the major ills of our society such as underdevelopment and continuing poverty, political instability, periodic crises, corruption, emigration of skilled Guyanese, and many others can never be resolved.