The course of changing government in Guyana never did run smooth, and true to form we now find ourselves in the middle of another political transition muddle, this time of a possible legal variety. Following the 2015 election the PPP accused the coalition government of having rigged the result, an accusation they repeated for many months afterwards, in defiance of the evidence that the poll had been free and fair, and had been recognised as such by all the election observers. This allowed them to bang the old alarmist drum that the PNC in its new APNU garb intended to return to its old rigging habits when the next election rolled around.
Well the next election should be rolling around following the government’s loss of the no-confidence vote on December 21, although a note of uncertainty has now crept in. After the vote the Prime Minister and subsequently the President informed the Guyanese electorate that the constitution would be followed, and that a national election would be held within the required 90 days. All rational elements in the nation then breathed a sigh of relief; the last thing anyone wants at this stage is turmoil in any area of government, let alone outside it.
Of course, as expected, APNU+AFC quickly homed in on the defector in their ranks, Mr Charrandas Persaud, but his act per se, shorn of its human associations, is legitimate under the constitution. How the morality of his decision is viewed, would depend on whether Mr Persaud over several years, has been perceived to be a person of integrity. If he has, then the assumption would have to be that his choice was made for completely ethical reasons. If he has not, then suspicion might attach to him – although that having been said, critics would never know whether even if he normally were not regarded as unusually principled, his motives in this particular instance were not above board and in addition completely untainted.
Elements in the ruling coalition of course, have alleged his action was in fact tainted by corruption, something for which they have adduced no evidence and which Mr Bharrat Jagdeo has denied. As such, therefore, the validity of Mr Persaud’s vote, as stated above, stands quite independent of his character and his motives.
If the citizens of this land breathed a sigh of relief after they heard President Granger’s statement referred to above, it turned out that they were premature. On Christmas Eve, no less, the Cabinet established a Special Legal SubCommittee to review the legal implications of the vote. The Chairman of this committee is Attorney General Basil Williams, and we reported that the government had decided that it would formally write Speaker of the National Assembly Barton Scotland about the vote, and if the response to that was unfavourable, it would be prepared to go to court if necessary.
What the members appear to have taken on board is an argument first preferred by Attorney Nigel Hughes, who argued that 33 votes do not constitute a majority in the 65-member Parliament. “Half of the National Assembly is 33 members not 32,” we quoted him as posting on Monday, because mathematically one half of the House is 32.5 members. There is no such thing as half a member, he maintained, and therefore you have to round up to 33, meaning that a majority would have to be 34. He went on to write in another post: “[Y]ou have to round up to identify half of the house … The house voted 33:32. 33 is a rounding down of what constitutes half of the house. The motion consequently was not carried.”
A release from the Department of Public Information said that the coalition government assured its supporters and the public that it would pursue all “available options and act in the best interest of all Guyanese”. Given the course that the government has seemingly opted to take, that, it must be said, is a matter very much for question, despite the voices lending their clamorous support. For any politically semi-conscious member of the voting public, however, the ‘34’ argument is specious at best, and defies common sense.
Fortunately, there are commentators who have dismissed the ‘34’ argument, prominent among whom is Mr Ralph Ramkarran. He told Stabroek News that if one applies the ‘literal’ rule of interpretation, which is one of the rules recognised in law, the conclusion would be that a majority means at least one more. He questioned too whether Parliament would have likely considered that there cannot be half a person and as such 33 would be the half of 65. “Not at all. Parliament would have most likely considered that 33 was the majority where one party got one seat more,” we quoted him as saying.
Furthermore, the attorney adverted to the fact that since 2011, 33 was considered a majority. If the ‘34’ argument applied, therefore, between then and 2015, all the laws opposed would be illegal, and since 2015 all the laws passed would be illegal. “This false argument cannot stand scrutiny,” he said.
This point was also made by Opposition MP Anil Nandlall who said that 33 votes have always been sufficient to carry a motion or a bill forward for passage in the National Assembly. We reported him as saying that it was for this reason that APNU and the AFC, with their one-seat majority of 33 were
able to cut the annual budgets in the tenth Parliament, and similarly they were able to vote down the legislative changes required for the AML/CFT laws and the Amaila Falls Project, among others. “More importantly,” he observed, if thirty-three (33), is not a majority in a sixty-five (65) member National Assembly then APNU+AFC could not have lawfully formed the government after the 2015 elections.”
For its part the Bar Council of the Guyana Bar Association noted various attempts to argue that the [no confidence] motion was not validly passed in the National Assembly, and went on to make clear its position: “The Bar Council rejects as erroneous such contentions that the motion was not properly passed or that the vote is, for any reason, invalid.
“The Bar Council urges that the results and consequences of the motion be accepted and that urgent preparations for elections by the Elections Commission be started.” There is no hesitation or ambiguity there.
As far as APNU+AFC is concerned – although one imagines this is being driven primarily by APNU – they have nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by grasping at legal stratagems which would delay the election. Even if for the sake of argument they won a case in the courts, and the vote of no confidence were deemed invalid, they would simply entrench their old reputation of a lack of commitment to democratic norms and a preparedness to hang onto power at all costs. It would sound a death knell for their longer-term future as a viable party in a liberal democracy, and endow them with an odious international reputation with all the consequences which flow therefrom.
If it is that they don’t expect to win, and are only seeking to hold back the poll so the benefit of the budget measures can be felt (or perhaps even give President Granger more time to recover for an electoral campaign), it still will not afford them any advantage. They will continue to suffer the opprobrium of not accepting a vote which was constitutionally valid, without the benefit of a long enough time-frame to make the kind of economic impact they have so far not managed to have. What would save them and more especially undermine the traditional sniping of the opposition about rigging, is simply to accept the result of the vote of no confidence. They could then devote their energies wholly to their electoral campaign instead of trying to defend the indefensible.