It was on October 9, 1953, 66 years ago last week, that the Conservative British Government of Winston Churchill suspended what was known as British Guiana’s Waddington Constitution. It did so by passing an Order in Council which it enforced by sending to British Guiana an invasion army of 700 British troops. The intention was not merely to ensure that the 133-day old Government left office. It was to smash the democratic opening that British Guiana had achieved by destroying the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) which had spearheaded the campaign for universal adult suffrage with the ultimate objective of ending colonial rule. The PPP was democratic socialist, progressive, militant, impatient and intent on eliminating the intense poverty that gripped the majority of the Guianese people. The British Government had been persuaded by local reactionary forces that had travelled to London after the April elections in which the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats, that the PPP represented the forces represented the existential threat of ‘international communism.’
The Waddington Constitution that the British Government suspended had granted universal adult suffrage to British Guiana for the first time, eliminating property qualifications. It also allowed a modest measure of democratic rule by permitting an elected Legislative Council and a Cabinet comprising Ministers appointed by the party commanding the majority of votes. The PPP formed that Government, which had little authority, having to defer to the Executive Council of unelected officials headed by the British Governor. This did not stop the PPP Government from immediately setting about to alleviate the atrocious conditions of workers.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty binds the European Union (EU).
It provides that any member state may withdraw from the EU. Upon notification, the EU shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with the State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the EU. The Treaty shall not apply to the State in question from the date of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification, unless the European Council unanimously decides to extend the period.
Against the background of these provisions, the British Government called a referendum on continued membership of the European Union (EU) in June, 2016. 51.9 percent voted to leave the EU. After article 50 was triggered, withdrawal was due to take place on 29 March, 2019. Withdrawal was delayed to 31 October, 2019 after two extensions. With her proposed agreements to leave the EU rejected three times by the House of Commons, Theresa May resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and, after Boris Johnson won the position, she resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was appointed.
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.
Apart from recognizing its ‘interim’ status, the Government acknowledges no other consequence of the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21, after it members challenged the Opposition PPP to ‘bring it on.’ Attorney General Basil Williams said at a symposium at the Marriot Hotel sponsored by AmCham during last week said that Guyana is not geared for a no confidence motion. He also repeated at that event what he has said, in and out of court, that the Caribbean Court of Justice has not fixed a date for elections, implying that such a date is at large and will be fixed when house to house registration is complete. The Attorney General plucked out of the context of Article 106 that the Government shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election and appeared to indicate that this applies to whenever “the election” is held. In fact, “the election” refers to “an election within three months” which shall be held after the Government’s defeat on a no confidence motion.
To this melee of confusion, the President says that he doesn’t fix a date for, and has nothing to do with, elections; that it is Gecom’s responsibility to fix the date and to manage the elections. But the President then summoned the constitutionally independent body to his office for discussions in the absence of the Leader of the Opposition and then, after the meeting with Gecom on August 15, makes a statement reeking of intimidation: “We will accept any formula or any rule or any decision which satisfies the requirement of a credible election.” The President, the Attorney General and other Government spokespersons have said repeatedly that only a house to house registration will produce a credible list of voters. So what will the President do if in his view the decision of Gecom does not satisfy the requirement of a credible election, that is to say, does not uphold its decision to continue and complete the house to house registration to create a new voters’ list?