The political challenge faced by Guyana today remains the same as it was under the unmodified Westminster system (post-independence). It is not about ethnicity in the first place but about the incessant efforts of the executive, the cabinet and the president (formerly the PM), to hijack the powers of the House to implement policies that, however brilliant or corrupt, are not in keeping with the wishes of the majority of the representatives of the people.
Under Guyana’s constitution all ministers, save for a few technocrats, are appointed from a list of MPs drawn from the party winning the single largest bloc of votes. The responsibility of the executive is to fashion policies and implement laws passed by the National Assembly, also called the House, and approved by the president. The president appoints and removes the executive, but without the House’s approval there can be no laws passed or, most importantly, taxes levied. The presidency does not have paramountcy over the House which has different powers, but the executive, the cabinet, are drawn from MPs so there is some overlap between the two.
As a result of the November 2011 general and regional elections, the PPP won the presidency only. It did not win a right to govern unconstrained by the House. It was allocated 32 seats in the House, which is one seat less than the majority. In every democracy in the region and in Europe and North America, the power to govern has to be exercised with the support of the majority, otherwise there is the potential for gridlock. Consequently, either a coalition has to be formed after the elections or minority governments are put together, frequently on the basis of an understanding about the minimum package of legislation that the combined or main parties in the House will support. Guyana’s framers of the constitution in their wisdom forbade the first option. But even in the UK where this is possible, the current UK coalition of Conservative and Lib-Dems formed after the last elections, negotiated an inter-party agreement on policies. In the Netherlands and Belgium that agreement is always formal and has to be concluded prior to the formation of the government and cabinet. As a consequence, the naming of a cabinet in a country such as Belgium can take months – sometimes over 12 months!
Elsewhere, the absence of such formal agreements has given rise to the instability for which minority governments are notorious. The parties haggle over policies as they go along. Crisis and collapse are routine and largely reflect the imaginativeness of the minority governments and their leaders. Guyana has arrived at such a stage, but the instability has not been pre-ordained. It could have been and still can be avoided even without shared governance. What can we say about the dexterity of the PPP leadership – totally committed to inflexibility and absolutely sold on newspeak. Why? Because it is the same cabal that ran the country under Mr Jagdeo which still chairs important meetings. Because Mr Ramotar is afraid that any sign of flexibility will be used to displace him on grounds that he is weak.
In Guyana’s 65 member House, Mr Ramotar with 32 MPs has chosen to name a cabinet and ministers without reference to the other parties that have a majority of MPs. The legislation and policies which that cabinet has to implement need the approval of a majority of MPs, yet Mr Ramotar has blithely proceeded to implement the discredited policies of Mr Jagdeo. There has been no attempt to utilize the mechanisms available to minimize the scope for instability. Not a single policy agreed under the framework of the Tripartite Committee has been implemented. Not a single substantive opposition proposal has been accepted by the PPP. No common menu has been agreed because the PPP believes that to modify or to be seen to agree to change is a sign of weakness.
Instead of negotiating a package, the PPP regime resorts to the well worn practice of divide and rule and newspeak – calling voting in the House ‘bullyism‘ whenever it is not in support of PPP policies. Imagine that! The party that boasts of having restored democracy to Guyana has re-christened the practice of democracy, bullyism. That very attitude is a threat to democracy. It is both cynical and dangerous.
Mr Ramotar, Ms Gail Teixeira and their union vassals such as Mr Carvil Duncan, call an opposition majority, a dictatorship. In a democracy a majority exercises its will according to its interests whether it is a majority of one or one hundred. To call it a dictatorship of one or to imply that it is a minority is to mislead the public with what Orwell in his iconic Nineteen Eighty-Four called ‘newspeak’, namely,
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.“
By redefining a majority to mean a PPP majority rather than a simple majority, the PPP has been trying to elevate the powers of the presidency over those of the House and, in the process, the label dictatorship, much abused in Guyanese politics, is to be the excuse for overthrowing the Constitution. George Orwell could well be speaking of Guyana when he described in Politics and the English Language, how, “… unscrupulous politicians, advertisers, religionists, and other doublespeakers of whatever stripe continue to abuse language for manipulative purposes.“
The principal characteristics of doublespeak have been described by Edward S. Herman, in his book, Beyond Hypocrisy as, “… the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.”
I am reminded of these contributions when I read the official theme of FITUG’s 4th Biennial Congress and the reports of Wednesday’s proceedings, including Mr Ramotar disputing the extent, if not the existence, of corruption under the PPP and his strictures about the threats to democracy posed by the parliamentary majority in Guyana. The Congress theme, ‘Workers‘ Right to Secure Food and a Clean Environment’ deserves no further comment to someone writing in the most filthy city in the Caribbean.
As part of the PPP regime’s attack on the rights of the majority, the courts have been asked to strike down the amended 2013 Budget because it has, inter alia, included cuts to the OP’s allocation. This the AG complained will hamper the work of the President. It may come as a surprise to those who have not had the opportunity to look at constitutional history, even ours, that the intent of the Constitution is to permit the House to deny funds equivalent to part or all of the entire budget sought if the executive proposes to spend or tax unsatisfactorily. Without that power the consideration of the budget would be meaningless because, as has happened often, the executive will simply ignore the House and the electorate’s wishes.
The President has also announced that legislation passed by the House will not be signed into law by him.
The House is the same body which, in defiance of the popular will, passed laws renaming Timehri Airport. It has been the same process in the same House with PPP MPs and ministers. It has now been deemed a dictatorship because the PPP’s majority is minus one.
If the Parliament has no power to change what is presented by the PPP Minister of Finance and the Minister does not consult and secure the agreement of the opposition MPs prior to the formulation of the budget, where is the scope for representation? In that situation the Parliament can only be a rubber stamp. The Ways and Means Committee was first established in Britain to approve funds with which to obtain supplies for the state. Under the banner of ‘no taxation without representation‘ many communities, including the USA (Boston Tea Party), governed by despots and foreigners rebelled. If in the Parliament, the majority which represented the people did not have the final say on how the monies were to be spent and how taxes are to be raised, there would be no taxes paid.
The dangerous direction in which the PPP is heading can be seen from their request for the courts to ignore the powers of the House and to give to the Minister of Finance powers to spend from the Contingencies Fund and for the courts to deem illegal any cuts to budgets presented by the PPP regime. They are actually seeking to neuter the House. This can only be successful but not necessarily acceptable, if the PPP had won a majority of seats. Clearly the voters saw this as undesirable. The PPP is therefore trying to undo the election result.
1984 here we come! Can we deserve such an administration?
At the same time, the presidency has been ignoring the requirements of the Constitution. The latter lists among the fundamental rights of Guyanese the appointment of an Ombudsman and a Public Procurement Commission, the independence of the judiciary and of the service commissions and the Public Service Appellate Tribunal. The President has been in office for one year and not a single one of these conditions has been met.
There is no Ombudsman appointed, the Chancellor and Chief Justice have been acting for several years. The judiciary is the scene of many questionable and political appointments and pressures. With the aid of the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act of 2003 the PPP has for 9 years acted unconstitutionally. The judiciary, Gecom and the Office of the Auditor General, for example, have been subject to oversight by the MOF and interference, in defiance of Article 222A of the Constitution.
All of these acts of omission and of commission have the effect of weakening oversight of the executive’s actions vis-à-vis the judiciary and the National Assembly. They give the presidency primacy over the other arms of the state and destroy the separation of powers.
Most recently and to crown it all, the government has chosen to react to the House’s no-confidence in Mr Rohee, the Minister of Home Affairs by calling on the Speaker to expel the opposition from the House. I have said elsewhere that the House is the master of its affairs. It can choose to sanction any member. The legal opinions obtained by the Speaker in relation to the opposition request for him to deny Mr Rohee the floor do not dispute this.
They merely state that the Speaker does not have to act on the basis of a no-confidence vote. He does not have to but he may. Speakers have discretion and supported by the House in the past they have done just that. In fact in 1963 the Speaker Mr Rahaman Gajraj suspended the Premier, Dr Jagan, and three other members of the House for misconduct. Mr Bashir of Essequibo was expelled from the House in the 1980s. Whilst it is the president who has to remove or re-assign his ministers, the House can choose how to sanction any of its members without reference to what the president decides or wishes. Ultimately, the House cannot remove the Minister from the ministry but it can remove him from the House and that would severely curtail how he functions as a minister.
On the other hand, the expulsion of the opposition from the House would be the final nail in the coffin of the Constitution. It would complete the PPP coup. Such exclusion of an elected majority from the Parliament would have predictable consequences, however. The Speaker is being invited to push the majority down the slippery slope of extra-parliamentary, if not unconstitutional action.
Carl B Greenidge