National good over narrow interests in Guyana

President of Guyana David Granger and Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo showed political maturity when they met on Wednesday, January 9, 2019 to try to resolve a constitutional crisis that could have led to civil strife and the destabilisation of their nation. They should be applauded for the good sense they have showed so far, and they should be encouraged to continue to place the national good of Guyana before narrow party political interests.

The two political leaders met after a motion of no-confidence against the Government was passed on December 21, 2018 in the House of Assembly by one vote. A member of the Government side, Charandass Persaud, voted in support of the Opposition, which had submitted the motion to the House.

The Government is a coalition between APNU (mainly the People’s National Congress) and the Alliance for Change (AFC). The coalition won the general election of May 2015 by a razor-thin majority of one seat in the 65-seat legislature. Guyana’s electoral system provides that the leaders of the electorally successful political parties name a slate of representatives to the National Assembly based on the number of seats won by the parties. Charandass Persaud was named by the leader of the AFC, the smaller party in the coalition Government.

Early reports of the meeting between Granger and Jagdeo indicate that agreement was reached on three critical matters without which Guyana would most certainly have been plunged into chaos. The three matters are:

(i) the Constitution of Guyana will be respected, meaning that a general election will be held within 90 days of the December 21 no-confidence vote, or such longer time as the Assembly agrees;

(ii) appeals to the court by various parties concerning the validity of the no-confidence vote will proceed and the political parties will make representation to the court for an expedited decision with which they would abide; and

(iii) the political parties will meet the Electoral Commission to determine its readiness to hold a general election and to agree measures to advance the process.

Had the leaders not demonstrated this politically mature stance, the alternative would have been street protests and marches by the Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the heightening of political tensions, and the potential for violence that would have harmed Guyana’s prospects just as oil production by ExxonMobil and other oil companies looks set to make it the richest country in the Caribbean.

Of course, advantage would have been taken of any turmoil and political instability in Guyana by its adversaries, such as Venezuela, which claims two-thirds of the country, to advance their cause even by military means. The unity of the Guyanese people is crucial to resisting territorial claims and maintaining Guyana’s sovereignty.

But one issue remains outstanding.

Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, a former president of Guyana, argues that until elections are held the Government remains in office only as a “caretaker”. President Granger says the Constitution makes no such stipulation.

This argument could become problematic unless the court acts expeditiously to deliver a ruling on the case brought by the Government challenging the validity of the no-confidence vote. If the court delays hearing the case and delivering a ruling the political atmosphere will heat up and could still lead to civil strife.

The need for urgency by the court in delivering a ruling in an elections matter would not be new or unique to Guyana. For instance, the 2012 Law Commission Report in the United Kingdom on ‘Challenging Elections in the UK’ favoured the guidance of the European Union’s Vienna Commission, which stated: “Election law must guarantee the resolution of disputes within a period of time suited to the electoral process. It is crucial here to ensure that the outcome of elections is not delayed. This implies that the period between the filing of a complaint and when it is dealt with is very short.”

The guidance goes on to say that “all complaint and appeals should be determined once and for all within a maximum of two months”.

In the broad interest of every sector of the Guyana economy and every person in the country, reasoned, but swift, action is therefore required by the court. Meanwhile, all parties should work to ensure that the general election can be held smoothly in an orderly and peaceful atmosphere.

To satisfy all sectors and groups within Guyana, and outside of it, the main political parties should also agree to external observation of the entire election process, not only of the election period. And that external observation should begin now. There are many organisations that could be approached to undertake this activity, including the (Jimmy) Carter Center, the Organization of American States, and the European Union.

It would be in Guyana’s interest to seek external observation of the entire electoral process since it would allay fears of rigging, eliminate credible accusations of manipulation, ease tensions between political parties and their supporters, and create the atmosphere for peaceful elections in which the voters of Guyana decide the next Government.

If the political parties are convinced of the national appeal of their programmes, and of their popularity, they should have no fear in leaving the judgement to the people.

Mixed-up in the validity of the no-confidence vote is a claim that Chandradass Persaud was a dual national and, in that circumstance, was disqualified from being a member of the National Assembly, let alone to vote. It turns out that there may be many other members from all the political parties in the assembly who are also dual nationals and have voted on many motions and legislation. Whether an action of the National Assembly, once done, can be undone, throws up issues over the validity of all the actions the assembly has taken while dual nationals have voted.

Of greater importance now is what happens going forward. At the present time, the Guyana Constitution prohibits a dual national from serving in the National Assembly. Therefore, no dual national should be put on the slate of any political party contesting the next general election unless they publicly and evidently rescind their nationality in any other country.

Further, those who are dual nationals in Parliament should now own up to their situation and rescind their other nationalities immediately. Members of the assembly are lawmakers. Lawmakers cannot be lawbreakers, particularly not knowingly.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.