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.
At the last two hearings of the cases before the CCJ, the clear preference was expressed by the Court for a political resolution of the NCM (no confidence motion) case. The Court, like everyone else, is fully cognizant of the political implications of any consequential order, especially having regard to the disputes over the voters’ list. At the last sitting of the Court, the President, Justice Adrian Saunders, expressed exasperation that the parties did not even meet, much less have discussions on the way forward. The Court is obviously anxious that what appears to be an explosively political matter should have a political solution which would satisfy all parties, rather than orders by the Court which may satisfy no one or only one. At the time of writing the President and Leader of the Opposition have not met.
The legal challenges by APNU+AFC initially appeared to be only a play for time. It was successful because the Government has obtained several additional months of life. More time is expected but even more is being demanded. A new voters’ list by house to house registration is demanded on the basis of vastly exaggerated and unproved claims about alleged defects in the list. These claims are that the list is bloated by 200,000 names and 18-year olds are not registered. This is the same list that was used for the recent local government (LGE) elections and there were no complaints. 18-year olds were extracted from the national register which registers persons from the age of 14 for the list used for the LGE. The same will apply for the voters list for new elections. Claims and Objections (C&O) will take care of any omissions. The latest play for time is that the list will not be ready until December 25. Both the 1990 and 1997 house to house registration took approximately eighteen months. On the evidence of the past, therefore, once house to house registration starts, there will be no elections until the end of 2020, if then.
The legal adviser to the Elections Commission came in for some blistering, public, abuse by Commissioner Desmond Trotman, who referred to the young lawyer as practising ‘deceit.’ Apparently, the opinion she gave as to the law relating to registration of electors, was not to his liking, as it contradicted the position that he and his fellow Government-appointed Commissioners had been advocating. Ms. Excellence Dazell advised as follows: “I therefore advise that procedures be put in place to ensure the revision of the list, otherwise the Commission would be acting in defiance of the law….” Ms. Dazell argued that “based on (election laws), the list must be updated bi-annually by adding persons who are now qualified to be registered, to that list, and those who are no longer qualified to be registered, to be taken off that list….”
There are two laws that are mainly relevant to registration and elections. These are the National Registration Act and the Election Laws (Amendment) Act.
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.