There seems little doubt that in less anomalous jurisdictions convention would have required Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee to resign, but stony soil blights Guyana’s political landscape, and no such convention has ever taken root here. As it is, therefore, Mr Rohee, confident in the support of his colleagues, and by implication, the President, could announce over the clamour of the opposition members in the House on Thursday, “I am not going anywhere.” It will be recalled that at an earlier stage APNU and the AFC had passed a motion of no confidence against the Minister over his management of the security sector, but he still remains entrenched in his post. The opposition, therefore, decided they would not allow him to be heard in Parliament, and in the end Speaker Raphael Trotman was obliged to invoke Standing Order 47 and adjourn the session. However, that was not before he had ruled that he could not restrict the Minister’s participation in the National Assembly, and had informed the members that he had taken legal advice which indicated that President Ramotar was “not constitutionally or legally obliged” to adhere to the no-confidence motion.
We are, therefore, at a parliamentary impasse – by no means a unique experience for this country, but this time with a twist, considering the opposition now commands a majority in the House, albeit of a single seat. This, of course, is not a consideration for the ruling party, which refuses to accept the implications of being a minority government. There were their MPs on Thursday at their press conference in the Public Buildings, grim faced, unrelenting, militant, insisting that the Speaker had not taken strong enough action and should have evicted the disruptive opposition members, which, it might be observed, was all of them. It was the ultimate display of solidarity and party loyalty.
What has happened is that the PPP has been allowed to resurrect a narrative which it knows by heart, and which dates back many decades. For the governing party this is the reprise of the 1960s, when ‘enemies’ all around sought to bring them down and drive them from office, and they closed ranks to defend themselves. All situations in which they come under sustained criticism are for them variations on this theme, and so it is in this instance too. It is not important to them how Mr Rohee, a long-standing member of the party, has discharged his functions; by definition he has performed well once his critics emanate from beyond the magic circle of Freedom House. An attack on Minister Rohee from such alien sources, therefore, is an attack on the party itself, and the party automatically will then adopt its classic defensive posture.
For his part, Mr Rohee thanked his colleagues for their support – as well he might, since Thursday’s events apart, few countries will have seen so many cabinet ministers desert their desks to give ‘moral’ support to a comrade when he was undertaking nothing more hazardous than testifying before a commission of inquiry. (At the Linden inquiry there was a solid phalanx of PPP/C ministers present when Mr Rohee was on the stand.) But then this is about the PPP perceiving itself as being under siege and displaying loyalty to the senior member through whom the ‘attack’ on the party is being prosecuted. It may be partly for this reason that the government earlier bizarrely had recourse to the courts over the no-confidence motion against Mr Rohee, although it was also partly a forlorn attempt to circumscribe the ambit of a Parliament they no longer control.
That the Minister does not believe himself answerable to anyone outside the government (and party) was made clear at the press conference when he said: “In so far as the charge that is being made about my ability to function as Minister of Home Affairs, I doubt whether either Mr Granger or Mr Ramjattan are in a position to assess that. They are not members of the Cabinet, they are not in the government and it is only my colleagues who work and sit with me who are in the best position to judge that, and then at the end of every five years, the people can judge that… ”
Perhaps the public has become inured to such strange comments, so nowadays they will hardly engender a reaction, but in other democracies remarks of this kind would have probably forced a minister’s resignation in their own right. The very least that can be said is that there is no common view of what in a general sense constitutes a democracy on our parliamentary benches; the opposition is working with a concept more characteristic of Western democracies in general, while the PPP is operating with a very limited notion more akin to what obtains to our west. In no other liberal democracy could the Minister successfully argue that only his government colleagues could judge him; it is an absurd position which would imply that as minister, he would be unaccountable to the nation and the public during his five years in office, never mind that in the last poll the majority of the electorate did not vote for his party.
Although he said that the people could judge him at election time, in fact in our ‘list’ system even that cannot happen; there is no reckoning in relation to specific ministers since the electorate votes for a party and a presidential candidate. In our Friday edition we quoted Mr Neil Kumar who accompanied Minister Rohee down to the press conference as saying, “Rohee, he is the PPP/C minister, he is the people’s minister.” The first statement is accurate; the second is not.
As indicated in the first paragraph, as the constitution stands at present, it does not matter how a minister discharges his duties, it is only the head of state who can remove him. If the latter is not of a mind to ask for a minister’s resignation, then no amount of confidence motions in the legislature can accomplish that. As noted above also, an appeal to democratic convention has had no traction with either the Minister or the party he serves, so the opposition has resorted to ensuring he is not heard during parliamentary sessions.
One cannot help but feel that perhaps this tactic was not carefully thought through, since APNU and the AFC have now boxed themselves into a corner, and the PPP has gone into laager mode, a situation in which as previously mentioned, it always feels extremely comfortable. If the opposition continues along this line when the session resumes, the Speaker will be forced to invoke Standing Order 47 again, and the only way he can increase the pressure would be to evict all the opposition members – something which would carry the impasse a step further. In the meantime, the work of Parliament, the only forum where the opposition can have some kind of effect, would grind to a halt.
Whatever else APNU and the AFC should be doing, they should not be holding up the work of the National Assembly; no less than the Minister of Home Affairs, they too are answerable to the people of Guyana who supplied their small majority. It would seem that their legal foundation with regard to disrupting parliamentary sessions on this issue is shaky, while they have no practical way of forcing the Minister’s resignation at this time. They should therefore accept this unpalatable reality and cast around for alternative means of registering their view that the Minister should resign. It is highly unlikely they will secure any kind of compromise with the government on this matter, such as someone else reading in Parliament on Mr Rohee’s behalf; the onus lies with them, therefore, to come out of the corner with an alternative strategy and give themselves more manoeuvrability, so at least in other areas they can discharge some of the important work the voters sent them to Parliament to do.