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 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 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.
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.
By virtue of the now familiar Article 106(7) of the Constitution of Guyana, elections are due to be held within three months of the passage of a no confidence motion in the National Assembly on December 21, 2018, that is, by the end of March. The court has no power to alter the Constitution by extending the time. Only the National Assembly, by a two-third majority, can do so.
The first step after the passage of the no confidence motion ought to have been a directive from the President to the Chair of the Elections Commission to provide a timetable for the holding of elections before the end of March, 2019. This is what the Opposition Leader, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, ought to have insisted on at his meeting with President Granger on January 9. Instead the Opposition allowed itself to be ensnared in a charade of fruitless consultation with the Elections Commission. That it would have been fruitless was later signaled by a chorus that a new electoral list was neededand by a delay in the meeting. The most recent, flimsy, excuses are that time is needed for the training of elections day staff and the mobilization of supplies. These can be accomplished in weeks. Existing trained staff for local government elections only need to be upgraded and supplies can be acquired by emergency procurement.