Political tensions in Guyana took a turn for the worst over the past two weeks. This has resulted from the appointment by President Granger of former Justice James Patterson as Chairman of the Elections Commission. Claiming that the third set of names contained no one who was fit and proper as required by the Constitution, the President, rejecting the names, utilized the constitutional proviso that enabled him to appoint a judge or former judge or a person qualified to be a judge.
Mr. James Patterson may not have been the President’s first choice. The appearance of Major General (ret’d) Joe Singh’s name among the final six gave some hope that the matter would be resolved without resort to the proviso. Those who know the retired Major-General suggest that he would not have allowed his name to go forward if there was any possibility that it would be rejected as not fit and proper. His sudden resignation from all government posts suggest that an undertaking, which may have been given to him, had been violated.
The Peoples’ Progressive Party went to extraordinary lengths over ten months to find eighteen Guyanese willing to agree to have their names submitted to the President of Guyana for consideration to be appointed to one of the most difficult, controversial and thankless of jobs – Chair of the Elections Commission. Of the last six names submitted, two immediately leap out for consideration. Retired Major General Joe Singh was the highly respected Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and was a former Chair of the Elections Commission for the 2002 elections, which were credibly held. Attorney at Law Teni Housty is a well-respected, well-qualified, senior, experienced, lawyer and former President of the Guyana Bar Association. Many of the other nominees are also well qualified but no one can seriously assert that the political persuasion of either of these gentlemen, if any, would influence their decisions. Many observers expected, or at least hoped, that President Granger would find suitable persons from the last six.
The PPP has announced that it will mount a constitutional challenge to the President’s appointment. The best time for this was after the President had rejected the first six names and in doing so had suggested that the names should be of only judges, former judges or persons qualified to be judges. The results of the case which was filed after the Leader of the Opposition had submitted a second set of names, showed that it could have been possible to obtain an order from the court directing the President to choose a name from that first six. The Leader of the Opposition having submitted two further sets of six names, each at the invitation of the President, for understandable reasons, has deprived him of the opportunity of having an order in relation to the first six names.
The first elections under universal adult suffrage was held in British Guiana on April 27, 1953. It was won by the Peoples’ Progressive Party which had been formed in 1950 during an era of anti-colonial upsurge in the British Empire, particularly in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya. Cheddi Jagan had expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles in these countries in his speech at the opening of the Legislative Assembly on June 17, 1953. Many at that time, and for the rest of his political career, would have preferred that he remain silent about the foreign domination and oppressed.
The government lasted until October 9, 1953, when the constitution was suspended and the government removed from office. The historical background and secret communications surrounding this traumatic event has been well researched and publicised. The Government held office at the sufferance of the British Government whose local representatives were merely watchful and cautious. But anti-communist agitation by leaders wedded to colonial privileges, perfidiously exploiting the hysterical atmosphere created by the Cold War, one of whose architects, Winston Churchill, was the Prime MInister, resulted in the suspension of the Constitution. History has already delivered its judgment on the events of 1953 and the leaders of the PPP, but profound and relevant lessons remain for the Guyanese people.
For more than twenty years the task of choosing a chairperson of the Elections Commission (GECOM) was without controversy. With the resignation of Dr. Steve Surujballi the President invited the Leader of the Opposition to submit a list of six, not unacceptable, names under article 161 of the constitution, which was done in December, 2016. The article requires the chair to be a judge, a former judge or a person qualified to be a judge (the “judge category”) or a fit and proper person. The President rejected the list in its entirety. He first suggested that only a person in the ‘judge category’ could be appointed but later amended that to indicate that preference must be given to the ‘judge’ category. The President also stated that all the names on the list must be acceptable and if one is not, he is entitled to reject the entire list.
At the invitation of the President, the Leader of the Opposition submitted a second list. This was also rejected by the President. The Leader of the Opposition continued the policy of engagement and indicated that he will submit a third list. However, by that time, Mr. Marcel Gaskin, of a new organization called RISE, formed to promote constitutional reform, brought legal-constitutional proceedings seeking answers to four questions. These were: whether the list must include a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge; whether the President must state reasons for deeming each of the six names unacceptable; whether the President is obliged to select a person unless he has decided that the persons are unacceptable; whether one person being unacceptable renders the whole list unacceptable. The Guyana Bar Association, entered a case as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) and made submissions. The case was heard before Chief Justice (ag) George-Wiltshire, who announced an oral decision on July 17. The 33-page written decision became available last week.
The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ were led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed into ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.