The Guyana Government’s lawful tenure in office came to an end on September 18. The no confidence motion was passed pursuant to article 106 of the Constitution on December 21 and should have resulted in elections by March 21. However, court proceedings placed a ‘pause’ on events and time began to run again on June 18 when the CCJ ruled against the Government. The CCJ gave the clear indication, but did not rule, that elections are due by September 18. Nothing prevented the CCJ from formally ruling, which the lawyers representing the appellants, who had brought the case against the Government, had sought. The result is that the Government has quite duplicitously argued that the CCJ did not rule, the Constitution has not been violated and the Government has de jure and de facto power. From whence this lawful power has been derived has not been explained in any sensible or rational way.
I am deeply conscious of, and have written extensively on, the ethno-political fears that influence Guyana’s politics. I have, and so have many others, repeatedly urged our main political parties to discuss the proposals which they themselves have placed on the political agenda and come to an agreement on how political responsibility can be shared between them equally so that neither can feel at risk of being dominated by the other. The reason the APNU+AFC’s promises of constitutional reform failed to materialize is that it realized that its own proposals would put it in an inferior power position to the PPP. In order to arrive at a political solution, the parties have to accept equality of representation. And it is the PPP that would have to make that concession or sacrifice because of its superior numbers. APNU+AFC has the historical injustice of slavery as an argument to counter that of superior numbers.
APNU+AFC was shell-shocked after inviting the PPP/C Opposition to “bring it on,” that is, the no confidence motion. ‘Bassady’ by the head blow of the Charrandass Persaud’s supportive vote of the NCM, they unsteadily promised to comply with the Constitution and hold elections in three months. Then reality stepped in. Somebody discovered the fiction that the human body of a parliamentarian could not be divided in half and that the majority of 65 was really 34. Most Guyanese would have disagreed with the notion that a parliamentarian would not be willing to have his/her body divided in half. We are all aware of the patriotic displays by parliamentarians on both sides of the House during Sittings. Quite often the Speaker has to intervene in exasperation to quell raucous nationalistic fervor. As it turned out, the sacrifice was unnecessary as history repeated itself. From Mustique in 1985, to Herdmanston in 1998, to the CCJ in 2019, Caricom and its agencies have consistently rescued the PNC/PNCR/APNU, or enabled it to rescue itself. And the international community’s fit of conscience about Guyana in the early 1990s has clearly not survived.
There is no mystery about article 106 of the Constitution. In 1999-2000 the PPP/C appeared to be firmly ensconced in office. The traffic of MPs across the floor had historically been only one way, from the PPP to the PNC. With this in mind, supporters of the then Opposition PNCR and their allies felt that if they were able to encourage that traffic to continue, and they were able to acquire the support of a majority of the members of the National Assembly, the PPP/C Government might not have been willing to observe the convention and resign on a successful no confidence motion or decisive defeat. Hence article 106. The provision requiring the Cabinet to resign was obviously inserted to enforce the caretaker status after a no confidence vote. PPP/C Governments had refused to recognize the existence of such a convention, hence its enshrinement.
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 Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has ruled in two of the most important constitutional cases that have engaged its attention in its ten-year history. The cases from Guyana have their origins in Guyana’s troubled political history and struggle for ethno-political dominance. In the first case the CCJ decided that the appointment by President Granger of the Chair of the Elections Commission on October 19, 2017, violated the Constitution. In the second case, it decided that the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21, 2018, in a 33 to 32 vote, was lawful and valid.
President Granger declared that the Government accepted the decision but insisted that the appointment of the Chair of GECOM was not flawed, and if it was, the CCJ must let him know what the flaw is. The CCJ had already noted that President did not reveal what were the flaws in the 18 names presented to him by the Leader of the Opposition for appointment as Chair of the Elections Commission. In any event, courts do not respond to political interrogation, and it is the job of the Attorney General to advise His Excellency.
The meetings last week between the President and the Leader of the Opposition and the President and the Guyana Elections Commission, did not yield a solution to the impending constitutional crisis that has been dominating the news in recent weeks. Maybe the President and his Attorney General do not believe that a constitutional crisis faces Guyana on March 22. Both have said that according to article 106 of the Constitution, the President holds office until the next President is sworn in. They have purposefully ignored that a no confidence motion was passed in the National Assembly on December 21 and that the new president must be elected in three months, unless that time is extended by a two-third majority.
But this issue has now gone beyond what the constitution says and means. The President’s failure to fix a date for elections is because APNU+AFC intends to remain in office for as long as possible. This is aided by the majority on the Guyana Elections Commission who have voted, and will no doubt continue to support, a new registration exercise. A nation-wide, house-to-house, registration exercise will last into next year. If APNU+AFC’s effort to hold political power succeeds, it will hold elections between May and August next year, when its term of office would have otherwise lawfully ended. Having been caught flat-footed by the no confidence vote, it lost time, which it now seeks to unconstitutionally regain, to put systems in place to win the elections. This clearly is a matter of political life and death and explains the tenacity of its efforts.