October 5, 1992, the date of the return to democracy after a quarter of a century, promised not only a new era of democracy, but of winner-does-not-take-all politics. The first half of the equation has been largely achieved, though still on shaky ground. The second half, recognized as essential for political stability and economic and social progress, has been all but been abandoned. And it has spawned the political instability that now prevails.
Without an overarching and inspiring political direction, for most Guyanese, the choice for March 2 is already made. In accordance with long standing tradition, rooted in the ethno-political dimensions of our politics, most Guyanese will vote for either the PPP/C or the APNU+AFC. While Guyana has special historical circumstances which determine the bases of the political choices made by the vast majority of voters, in most democratic countries, in and out of the Caribbean, the choices are also between two main political parties, but ideologically, between social democratic/liberal and conservative. Similar circumstances exist in most of the Caribbean although distinguishing their ideological orientation is sometimes difficult.
On 26 September, 2019, Justice Claudette Singh, Chair of the Elections Commission, signed Order No. 70 of 2019, made under the National Registration Act pursuant to the powers conferred by sections 6(1)(a), 6(A), 13, 14 and 15 of the National Registration Act. The objective of the Order was to provide for what has become known as Claims and Objections. The Order is peculiarly named The National Registration (Residents) Order and not, as would have been expected, “The National Registration (Claims and Objections) Order.” The naming of the Order unwittingly exposes its nefarious objective – to undo the decision of the Chief Justice that non-residents cannot be taken off the List.
“Claims and Objections” are provided for by section 15 of the National Registration Act. But it is not defined. However, GECOM’s Manual of Instructions does at page 10. It states: “Revision of List of Electors: Claims and Objections: The Claims and Objections exercise within the Continuous Registration process will be conducted at the registration offices and sub-offices for a specified period of time. The exercise provides eligible electors, who did not register, the opportunity to gain entry to the list of electors or to update their particulars (transfers and changes). It also provides the opportunity for objections to particulars in the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE)….”
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.
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.
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.