With his administration’s extra-budgetary spending becoming a lightning rod for an AFC-led push for a vote of no-confidence against his government, President Donald Ramotar yesterday defended the expenditure saying that the opposition can have the court decide whether it is constitutional or not.
In 2012 and 2013 “we did exactly the same thing and the opposition voted for many of them in the National Assembly and it is totally within the Constitution. Everything we do, we do it within the Constitution,” Ramotar asserted during a hastily-called news conference at State House yesterday. He said the opposition is peddling inaccuracies and noting its stance that the spending is unconstitutional, questioned why this issue has arisen. “Why are they plugging this line that it is unconstitutional when they themselves participated in this process in 2012 and 2013 and they didn’t see it as being unconstitutional then? Why are they now branding it unconstitutional?” he questioned.
Government has spent more than $4.5 billion of the $37.4 billion cut from this year’s $220 billion national budget and Minister of Finance Ashni Singh on June 19, tabled Financial Paper 1 of 2014 seeking the approval of the House for the extra-budgetary spending. However, this quickly attracted the ire of the main opposition APNU as well as the AFC with both parties saying on Friday that they will not approve the excess expenditure from the Consolidated Fund when it comes up for a vote at the next sitting of the National Assembly.
With the unapproved excess expenditure serving as a lightning rod, AFC Vice-Chairman Moses Nagamootoo on Monday stated that the party is seriously contemplating a no-confidence motion against the Ramotar administration and APNU officials subsequently said that the coalition will likely support such a motion but it has to be discussed at its Shadow Cabinet meeting on Tuesday before a position is taken. The AFC had since said that it has been receiving a huge amount of positive feedback from stakeholders on such a move. The support of APNU would be critical and a no-confidence vote passed by the combined opposition, who hold a one-seat majority in the National Assembly, would bring down the government and new elections would then have to be held in three months.
Ramotar has dared the opposition parties to move a no-confidence motion against his government. Yesterday, he reiterated that he is ready. “If they want to bring a no-confidence motion, I can’t stop them from bringing a no-confidence motion but I’ll be ready to face the consequences of that,” he asserted. The president said that Article 218 (3) of the Constitution clearly covers the spending. The noise being made by the opposition seems to be for some “sinister purpose,” Ramotar declared.
“These things, they did it, they participated with this in 2013 and 2012 and this is all that we’re doing again,” he said. “We’re doing this thing within the Constitution,” the President reiterated, emphasizing that the spending is not illegal. “And if the opposition got any doubt, let them take us to the court…we have a court that deals with constitutional issues,” he asserted. Ramotar said that the expenditure which covers the Amerindian Development Fund, the University of Guyana (UG) Student Loan Fund, the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) Modernization Project, the Government Information Agency (GINA), state broadcaster National Communications Network (NCN), among others, was “really urgent.” He said the opposition had supported funding for some of these entities in the past, adding that some of the spending involved contracts which are in progress. “These things I think are necessary for… the welfare of people… and secondly for the functioning of the state,” he asserted.
Meantime, analysts have differing views on the no-confidence motion. Former PPP government minister Dr Henry Jeffrey told Stabroek News that having raised the issue, if the opposition does not move for the no-confidence motion, it would send the message that they are unprepared for the big game and this would ricochet to the electoral advantage of the PPP.
He said that Article 106(6) of the Constitution which states that “The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by the vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence,” is clear. He pointed out that the Section goes on to say that elections must be held within three months or such period that two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly agree upon. Since neither party can be expected to muster two-third of the votes, an election will be within three months, he said.
“The opposition was gung-ho about the need for local government elections to test its support. However, I do not believe that either the government or the opposition really want a general election right now. If the opposition intention was to embarrass the regime rather than bring it down, it could have focused its strategy elsewhere,” Jeffrey said.
He said the opposition could have looked to Article 94 of the Constitution which states that the president can be removed for breaching the Constitution or gross misconduct, and they could use the local government elections issue as the base. Local government elections have not been held since 1994 and the opposition as well as local civil society and foreign governments including the US, UK and the EU have been calling for these elections to be held.
“While such an approach can be set in motion by a majority, it can only be passed by a 2/3 majority. However, if done at the right time, it could have given the opposition as long as 21 days to make national and international propaganda of the fact that the Constitution is being breached by the government,” Jeffrey said.
“But this stage may now have been passed, for now that it has raised the issue of a no-confidence vote the opposition has to soon rather than later go for it. If it does not, it would send the message that it is unprepared for the big game and was always bluffing. In my assessment, such a situation can truly ricochet to the electoral advantage of the PPP,” he said.
Attorney and civil society activist Christopher Ram told Stabroek News that the issue is whether both sides are ready for elections. He said both the opposition and government must know that the extra-budgetary spending is regarded as crossing a line. “All of them must be very concerned about the implications,” he said. Ram said that this is the weakest point for the government as the public will find it unacceptable that they went ahead and spent money without approval.
However, he also questioned whether the opposition parties are ready and how they would raise money. “I think financing is going to be a major problem which they are going to have to consider,” he said. He noted that government will not have the same constraints. He stated too that while he is unable to pronounce on the likelihood of a no-confidence motion, in another couple of years, the opposition still would have to make the same decision about how to finance their campaign.
Ram said that if he had to bet, he would say that the no-confidence motion is unlikely to be approved, and further, he would advise the opposition to go to court. In reference to Ramotar’s pronouncement that the opposition can have the counts pronounce on the matter, he said he does not think that they should shirk from this opportunity. “It’s a close call. The opposition should probably go this course first and seek an early decision of the court,” he said adding that it would strengthen their hand if they win.
Meantime, former PPP stalwart and former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran said that Ramotar’s testy reaction to the issue of a no-confidence vote against his government, is surprising in view of the fact that clear hints have already been broadly given by him that new elections are on the agenda for consideration.
“The fact that neither side has taken the necessary steps that would bring new elections, leads to the conclusion that neither is certain what the results would be. The national interest is one thing but partisan interest is a wholly different matter. The expressions of confidence by both sides at the potential outcome of new elections should be taken at face value and in the context of the need to keep supporters engaged. No political party will ever say that it will lose or not do better than the last time. But the fact that no one has belled the cat is evidence of the uncertainty they feel. The 2011 results is the first time in the history of free and fair elections that no party has obtained an absolute majority either of seats or votes. Thus no one can be sure that 2011 was a flash in the pan or a signal of what is to come,” he said in his Sunday Stabroek column.
“The government and opposition have to consider that there is a chance that elections held now with the same political line up will yield the same or similar results. As against this they also have to consider that no economic or political progress is taking place in the country and the continuing stalemate is creating more disinterest among the entire electorate. Our political parties are therefore in a dilemma. There is the national interest and the partisan interest. They conflict with each other. The national interest suggests that a new mandate should be sought, which may break the deadlock, while the partisan interest suggests that they should stay put, which will continue the deadlock,” he wrote.
Ramkarran noted that the current situation is characterized by the inability of the government to persuade the opposition to support any major project, most legislation or most budgets in their entirety. “Clearly both the government and opposition might feel that such a situation cannot continue indefinitely and that it might be in the interests of the nation to call new elections,” he said.
The former Speaker said that resolving the current political impasse by new elections or other means should be the concern of all political forces and all Guyanese. A suggestion of elections being a way forward ought to be an issue attracting careful consideration with the national interest being paramount, he said.
Ramkarran noted that the state of the economy has always played a defining role in political developments. “While PPP governments can boast of substantial progress in many areas, there is still a sufficiently large group of its supporters who have not been touched in any significant way by economic and other developments. These are the people who can cause the results of 2011 to be repeated because their situation has not changed since 2011. The opposition’s supporters will not react against their parties because of the economy. But they may react at the impotence of the opposition by a display of apathy on Election Day,” he said.