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.
In a lengthy article written in 2011 before the general elections of that year, for “Freedom House” on “Countries at the Crossroads 2011: Guyana,” Assistant Professor Joan Mars, of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice of the University of Michigan-Flint, said: “Elections are constitutionally due to be held in 2011. Calls by the political opposition for shared governance have not been endorsed by the ruling PPP/C administration headed by President Jagdeo; with its consistent absolute majority in parliament, the PPP/C has had little incentive to agree to share power, but the idea may be gathering momentum as a major rallying point in the forthcoming elections.“ Assistant Professor Mars, a former practising lawyer in Guyana, concluded: “The current system of majority rule should be reformed to provide for a power-sharing model that is representative of the ethnic diversity in the population. This would reduce the adverse effects of racial voting and promote minority inclusion in governance.” This conclusion is shared by many in Guyana, and by a long– suffering electorate, whose sentiments are exploited by the main political parties when they periodically declare their support for shared or inclusive governance, especially at election time, and when they see political advantage in it.
The election results of 2011 are well known. The PPP/C was not returned with an absolute majority for the first time since 1992, but with a plurality of 32 votes over 33 for the combined Opposition. With unimaginative inflexibility, the minority PPP/C Government, true to the culture of securing dominance, did not even discuss internally the issue of a coalition arrangement with one or both of the opposition parties. It was entitled to form a minority government and did so. As expected with minority governments everywhere in the world, but perhaps not by the PPP/C, the Government fell after three years of political turmoil.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland, having declined to reverse his declaration on December 21, 2018, that the no confidence motion against the Government had been carried on a vote of 33-32 in favour, has shifted the arena of contest to the Court.
The constitutional provisions which have been automatically triggered by the passage of the no confidence motion, by now well-known, state: “106(6) The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by a vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence. (7) Notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months, or such longer period as the National Assembly shall by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the votes of all the elected members of the National Assembly determine, and shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election.”
Both the President and Prime Minister accepted the outcome of the confidence vote. The President said that the Government will abide by it and “facilitate the smooth functioning of the general and regional elections…”. The Government has now changed his mind, will question the Speaker’s ruling, has reneged on his commitment that “the relevant constitutional provisions will kick in” and has grabbed a flimsy lifeline thrown to the Government by Mr. Nigel Hughes. Ridiculously puerile excuses by the Prime Minister, reflecting a desperate attempt of the Government to stay unlawfully in office in violation of all norms of democratic, constitutional and lawful conduct, were relied on.
The Speaker will now be asked to act as a policeman and investigate whether Mr. Charrandass Persaud was bribed, and also whether the majority should have been 34 and not 33, having repeatedly ruled since 2015, and having been accepted by the Government since 2011, that a majority is 33. These are ominous developments, which will bring ridicule to Guyana and to the APNU+AFC Government, derail the democratic process and have grave implications for Guyana’s future and for Parliamentary democracy.
What transpired in the National Assembly on Friday evening was always a distinct possibility, ,with the Government’s one seat majority. Election results mean something. In 2011, the electorate told the PPP/C that it wants that party to join in a coalition to manage the affairs of the nation. The PPP/C ignored the message. The electorate removed it from office in 2015. Then it proceeded to give the APNU+AFC coalition a mere one seat majority. This conveyed another message – that the APNU+AFC coalition government should proceed cautiously and engage with the Opposition.
The coalitionlikewise ignored the message, overreached and governed as if it had a sweeping mandate. Now, like the PPP, it has paid the price. Arrogance, meaning the ignoring of the message of the electorate, rather than humility, that is, frequent consultation with, and listening to, the concerns of supporters and backbenchers, such as Mr. Charrandas Persaud, appears to be an ingrained habit of the main political parties.