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.
October 5, 1992, the date of the return to democracy after a quarter of a century, promised not only a new era of democracy, but of winner-does-not-take-all politics. The first half of the equation has been largely achieved, though still on shaky ground. The second half, recognized as essential for political stability and economic and social progress, has been all but been abandoned. And it has spawned the political instability that now prevails.
Without an overarching and inspiring political direction, for most Guyanese, the choice for March 2 is already made. In accordance with long standing tradition, rooted in the ethno-political dimensions of our politics, most Guyanese will vote for either the PPP/C or the APNU+AFC. While Guyana has special historical circumstances which determine the bases of the political choices made by the vast majority of voters, in most democratic countries, in and out of the Caribbean, the choices are also between two main political parties, but ideologically, between social democratic/liberal and conservative. Similar circumstances exist in most of the Caribbean although distinguishing their ideological orientation is sometimes difficult.
On 26 September, 2019, Justice Claudette Singh, Chair of the Elections Commission, signed Order No. 70 of 2019, made under the National Registration Act pursuant to the powers conferred by sections 6(1)(a), 6(A), 13, 14 and 15 of the National Registration Act. The objective of the Order was to provide for what has become known as Claims and Objections. The Order is peculiarly named The National Registration (Residents) Order and not, as would have been expected, “The National Registration (Claims and Objections) Order.” The naming of the Order unwittingly exposes its nefarious objective – to undo the decision of the Chief Justice that non-residents cannot be taken off the List.
“Claims and Objections” are provided for by section 15 of the National Registration Act. But it is not defined. However, GECOM’s Manual of Instructions does at page 10. It states: “Revision of List of Electors: Claims and Objections: The Claims and Objections exercise within the Continuous Registration process will be conducted at the registration offices and sub-offices for a specified period of time. The exercise provides eligible electors, who did not register, the opportunity to gain entry to the list of electors or to update their particulars (transfers and changes). It also provides the opportunity for objections to particulars in the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE)….”
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.
The Chief Justice ruled last week in the case brought by Christopher Ram in connection with the house to house registration that it is unlawful to remove names from the registration list during the current exercise merely because they are not present at the addresses or had migrated. The stated objective of the house to house registration was to remove the names from what was described as a list ‘bloated’ by 200,000 names. It was not quite clear how the ‘bloating’ occurred, or how the figure of 200,000 was conjured up, but it was assumed that these were persons who had died or migrated.
The Attorney General described the decision of the Chief Justice as a “statement” regarding the removal of persons from the National Register of Registrants and as more like a “suggestion” to the Guyana Elections Commission. It is not an “order,” he said, and the Chief Justice could not have intended to direct GECOM. This must be a hint to GECOM that it can ignore the Chief Justice’s decision and continue the house to house registration.