(Jamaica Observer, Bruce Golding, 6.Jan.2019) — From a distance, Guyana has seemed poised for an era of unprecedented development and prosperity. Since 2015 it has confirmed 10 offshore oil wells capable of generating over 750,000 barrels per day. New wells are being discovered every few months and the technical data suggest that there are many more wells to be drilled.
With production expected to start next year, Guyana is in a position to become a significant oil producer — several times greater than Trinidad & Tobago — with tremendous benefit to its economy, its people and the region, if properly managed.
In such a scenario, political stability is a critical factor to ensure investor confidence not only in oil extraction but also in the wide range of downstream industries and enterprises that it would make possible.
The prospect of that stability is now being tested by the constitutional crisis that has emerged. The Government was elected in 2015 through a coalition between the Partnership for National Unity (APNU), a grouping of political parties dominated by the long-established People’s National Congress, and the much smaller and more recent Alliance for Change.
It was a strategic move which brought together the main forces of opposition to the then Government of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) that had held power for more than 20 years. They had contested the previous elections in 2011 separately and their combined votes exceeded those of the PPP. In 2015 they contested as a single entity, winning by a small majority of one per cent, securing the presidency as well as 33 seats to the PPP’s 32 in parliament.
That tenuous position was upended on December 21 when the coalition Government lost a no-confidence motion brought by the PPP. This came about because one member of the Alliance for Change, Mr Charandass Persaud, voted in favour of the no-confidence motion, giving it a 33-32 passage.
In a display of political maturity, vice-president and Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo immediately indicated that the Government accepted the outcome of the no-confidence motion, and announced that the constitutional provisions requiring that fresh elections be held within three months would now ensue. For his part, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo said “it's unprecedented in our country, and both sides have to display maturity in addressing it”.
President David Granger commented in the same vein, agreeing to Mr Jagdeo’s request for an early meeting to discuss the implications, and gave a commitment to “do everything necessary to facilitate the smooth functioning of general and regional elections, bearing in mind the need for normal governmental functions to continue uninterrupted”.
Those of us who are familiar with the turbulence of Guyana’s politics in the past were comforted that this crisis would pass without any major dysfunction. We now find ourselves holding our breath.
The Government has since embraced an opinion put forward by a Guyanese attorney that since one-half of the membership of parliament is 32½, 34 votes are required to secure a definitive majority — not 33, which exceed the one-half by only “half-a-vote”. These were the grounds on which the Government sought a ruling from the Speaker to overturn the motion.
To the surprise of many who expected him to rule in favour of the Government, Speaker Barton Scotland last Thursday rejected the request and suggested that the matter be referred to the courts for a determination. The Opposition PPP boycotted the sitting — a troubling sign that the goodwill which initially penetrated the cloud of uncertainty is waning.
The matter has been further complicated by three other issues. Firstly, it is reported that Mr Persaud holds Canadian citizenship, which would have made him ineligible to sit in parliament. Whether such ineligibility would have invalidated his vote on the no-confidence motion is a matter that would have to be determined by the courts.
Secondly, it has been alleged that he was paid a substantial sum to vote in support of the no-confidence motion — a charge that he has emphatically denied. This allegation would first have to be substantiated and then the courts would have to determine whether such an act, if it is proven, nullifies his vote on the resolution.
Thirdly, it has been suggested that the constitution does not allow Mr Persaud to vote against the party list from which he derived his membership in parliament. Guyana operates under a system of proportional representation that is vastly different from the constituency first-past-the-post system we have in Jamaica. Members are drawn based on the percentage of votes obtained by each party from lists of potential MPs submitted prior to the elections.
The constitution stipulates that a person shall cease to be a member of the National Assembly if he declares “in writing” that he will not support the party list from which his membership was derived, or that he will support “another list”. No such declaration “in writing” occurred in this instance but the argument has been proffered that a declaration is implicit in the act of voting against his party list.
Guyana’s political realities
Governing with a one-seat majority in Parliament is difficult. Doing so with a tenuous coalition is a nightmare. This played out in the local government elections in November when the Alliance for Change opted to field its own candidates against those of its coalition partner — the APNU — with disastrous results for both.
It would take some time for these issues to be adjudicated in the courts — first through Guyana's Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and, ultimately, the Caribbean Court of Justice. The Government has already signalled that, in order to facilitate this, it will be seeking the court's approval for an extension of the 90-day period within which elections must be held. The Opposition has countered that under the constitution the Court has no such authority.
A protracted period of uncertainty in its political arrangements is something that Guyana can ill afford, especially at this time. The fact that the Government's handling of oil exploration contracts was a significant element in the no-confidence motion has its own implications. Up to now, public reaction to the stalemate has been measured, but it has all the ingredients to create a flashpoint that could roll back much of the advancement that Guyana has made in its political processes. Guyana has struggled to overcome deeply polarising instincts, and there is a worrying possibility that this issue could reignite them.
Guyana’s leaders must rise above this. Too much is at stake. The private sector and the trade union movement must be prepared to constructively engage, grasp the big picture, and collaborate with the Government and Opposition toward a solution that will sustain confidence and stability and enable Guyana to get through this.
Caricom must stand ready to offer assistance, if needed, in a way that is acceptable to both the Government and the Opposition. Guyana cannot afford to falter at this time — not when it is on the cusp of a new horizon of hope and real possibilities. And if it falters, the entire Caribbean community is the worse off.
Bruce Golding is a former Prime Minister of Jamaica