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.
The crisis facing Guyana, due to get worse on March 22, when the Government loses its legal authority, was not the result of the actions of evil people. Not Charrandass Persaud for voting for the no confidence motion, not the PPP for encouraging him to do so, not APNU+AFC for seeking to stay in office for as long as possible in defiance of the Constitution. The crisis has emerged from the same culture that caused the PNC to rig elections, the PPP to abandon its pledge in 1992 to implement shared governance and in 2011 to fail to seek a coalition with the Opposition. The main political parties reflect the fears, anxieties and insecurities of the two major ethnic groups, each of which feels that unless it holds political office to the exclusion of the other, the economic and physical security of its supporters will be jeopardised. Each has its own narrative of grievances against the other, recent and historic, and each is as compelling to its owner as the other.
This systemic weakness has bedeviled our political culture since 1955 when the PPP split into two parties and became in 1957 the PPP and the PNC. Ethno-political fears have since remained the most dominant feature of our political system and which undergirds all political developments. If it continues, the major ills of our society such as underdevelopment and continuing poverty, political instability, periodic crises, corruption, emigration of skilled Guyanese, and many others can never be resolved.
The statement issued by the Bar Council of the Guyana Bar Association during last week quoted a dictum of the Chief Justice (ag) in the case of Attorney General of Guyana v Dr. Barton Scotland, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo and Mr. Joseph Harmonas follows: “I hold that the NCM [no confidence motion] was carried as the requisite majority was obtained by a vote of 33:32. The President and the Ministers cannot therefore remain in Government beyond the three months within which elections are required to be held in accordance with art 106(7), unless that time is enlarged by the National Assembly in accordance with the requirements of the said art 106(7).”
President Granger responded at a political rally at Vreed-en-Hoop, that he remains President until a new president is sworn in. The President made no reference to elections. Minister Harmon clarified on Friday afternoon that a date will be fixed for elections when the court cases are completed. He gave no indication that the March 21 deadline for the Government to remain in office will be adhered to. It therefore appears that the Government intends to remain in office, even after March 21, if the cases are not over, which is very likely. After March 21, the Government will be illegal. It will not be entitled to hold office, not entitled to make decisions, not entitled to enter contracts, not entitled to convene the National Assembly, not entitled to pass laws and not entitled to fix a date for elections.
The Chief Justice ruled that the no confidence motion was lawfully passed on December 21 in the National Assembly by a 33-32 vote, and that the vote of Charandass Persaud was lawful, notwithstanding that as a dual citizen he was unlawfully occupying his seat in the National Assembly. Consequent upon those findings, the Chief Justice ruled that the Cabinet automatically resigned on the passing of the no confidence motion. The Chief Justice granted neither a stay of execution nor a conservatory order which would have preserved the status quo ante. Yet the Government announced that the status quo remained and Government business will be conducted as usual.
This statement, disrespectful and defiant of the Chief Justice’s ruling, presumably means that the Cabinet will continue to meet and function and take decisions affecting the governance of Guyana, even though it is unlawful to do so. In effect, the Government’s functions must be limited to the implementation of existing decisions as no new ones can be made by the non-existent Cabinet. The statement also means that those Members of the National Assembly who hold dual citizenship will continue to occupy their seats even though the effect of the Chief Justice’s ruling in relation to CharrandassPersaud’s means that their membership is unlawful. Such bold, brazen and open defiance of lawful authority, of the Constitution and of the rule of law by a Government, have never been seen in Guyana after the Burnham era, or in the Commonwealth Caribbean, or in any democratic country for that matter.
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.