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.
It is generally accepted that Guyana endured a period of rigged elections between 1968 and 1985. The voters’ list was a critical element in the rigging throughout the entire period. The central counting of votes at one place in every region, which were completely sealed off by the military, facilitated the removal of the bottom from the wooden ballot boxes which were secured by nails. The boxes were then filled with a pre-determined number of fake ballots, although there was a limit to the number of such ballots that could be printed, marked with an X and inserted in the ballot boxes.
Thus, a multiplicity of schemes was devised. These included retaining on the voters’ list the names of persons who had died or migrated and padding the electoral list with fictitious names, impersonating and voting for persons who were legitimately on the list, securing proxies for employees from sympathetic or intimidated employers, postal votes and other devices. As these methods were exposed, different methods were rolled out at different elections. But a flawed electoral list was always a constant. That is why the elections due in 1990 was postponed for two years, by agreement with the then Opposition after an intense campaign, in order to conduct a new registration exercise for a new voters’ list.
As is now well known, the Constitution makes no distinction between a ‘simple’ and an ‘absolute’ majority. It refers only to ‘majority.’ But the Court of Appeal ruled that such a distinction exists and under Article 106(6) an absolute majority of 34 out of 65 is required for the passage of a no confidence motion. It defined an absolute majority as half plus one. For a 65-member National Assembly, half is 32½. Since there is no half person, then 32½ has to be rounded up to 33. Then adding one will make an absolute majority of 34.
The Constitution recognizes only a ‘majority’ and a ‘vote of not less than two-third ,’ or the ‘support of not less than two-thirds.’ It does not use the word ‘majority’ when describing the two-third vote, as set out below. Article 168(1) provides that: “Save as otherwise provided by this Constitution, all questions proposed for decision in the National Assembly shall be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present and voting.”
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.