Choosing Speaker to be first hurdle for hung Parliament

When the 10th Parliament of Guyana is convened later this month, the first challenge for the hung parliament would be the selection of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly.

Opposition coalition A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance For Change (AFC) together clinched 33 seats in the 65-seat National Assembly, leaving the PPP/C, which controls the remainder of the seats, the minority. With no single party having a majority, the work of the Parliament will be dependent on compromises by all the parliamentary parties, beginning with the selection of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, which will require consensus.

Article 56 (1) of the constitution says “when the National Assembly first meets after any election and before it proceeds to any other business, it shall elect a person to be the Speaker of the Assembly….” According to the Standing Orders, the election of the Speaker is determined by the agreement of a majority after a willing candidate is proposed and seconded by a member. The Standing Orders do not provide for a debate on the proposals for the post, only allowing for members to call for a division on the proposals.

According to Article 56 (2), the Speaker may be elected either from among the members of the Assembly who are not ministers or parliamentary secretaries or from among persons who are not members of the Assembly but are qualified for elections as members. Further, Article 56 (3) says after the election of the Speaker, the Assembly shall elect the Deputy Speaker.

Questioned about the selection of a Speaker, AFC presidential candidate Khemraj Ramjattan said that his party is prepared to engage both the government and the APNU.  Ramjattan, who said that he had some suggestions of his own, said that the party wanted a Speaker who would command the respect of all and who would be just in decision-making. The Speaker, Ramjattan said, must be someone who is capable of ensuring that the executive branch of government does not direct his/her judgment and who has the national interest at heart rather than the interest of a particular party.

A constitutional expert, who requested anonymity, told Stabroek News that normally the Speaker of the House is recommended by the government and is voted in by a simple majority. The candidate is usually drawn from the list of candidates of the ruling party but it is someone who would not have been extracted from the list to sit as a Member of Parliament.  Should a sitting member of Parliament be nominated to become Speaker then that person would, in fact, be giving up a parliamentary seat and the right to vote in the House.

According to the source, since the opposition is in control of parliament, the two opposition parties can meet and decide on a candidate who they can team up to support. According to the source, while the government could put forward a nominee, the opposition parties would more likely feel more comfortable with a nominee of their own. The source said too that if the opposition parties were to support a government nominee, it could in some ways be handing over the control of the House to the government.

Regarding the selection of the Deputy Speaker, the source indicated that whoever fills this role normally comes from the opposition benches. It would be up to the parties in the House now to decide how the Deputy Speaker would be chosen.

Meanwhile, concerning the functioning of the parliamentary committees, the source indicated that the country will now be going into previously unchartered waters in this regard where the opposition can control all these committees. For example, the Special Select Committees, according to the Standing Orders, should follow the balance of the parties in Parliament, which means that the opposition parties would control them. On the other hand, the sectoral committees, according to the standing orders, should consist of 7 persons; 4 from the government and three from the opposition, with the Chair and Vice Chair elected from among members of the government and opposition, respectively, and alternating annually. Two sectoral committees each are to be chaired by the government and opposition, respectively, the Standing Orders also say. It is, however, possible for the opposition to change the Standing Orders to give them complete control of these committees as well. The sectoral committees comprise the Committee on Natural Resources, the Committee on Economic Services, the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Social Services. As for the Standing Committees, which include the Parliamentary Management Committee, the Committee of Selection, the Public Accounts Committee, the Constitution Reform Committee and the Committee on Appointments, the opposition could control them all. Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee, which is responsible for fiscal scrutiny, is always chaired by an opposition member.

Recently, former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran told Stabroek News that under the Westminster system, the government has to have the support of the majority of the members of the National Assembly or else it would fail. He said that in the absence of a majority it would be difficult for the government to pass its budget and said that the government may choose to reach out to the other parliamentarians represented in the House to ensure it got a majority.

Recently, Senior Counsel Ashton Chase told Stabroek News that the success of the hung parliament is dependent on the level of dialogue between the president, parties and the leader of the House. “If they have good understanding there should be no problem. If they don’t, big issues would arise,” Chase said. He said it is imperative that the leaders put Guyana first.

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