No one who is reasonably au courant with events in Guyana will believe that President David Granger did not anticipate the consequences of his actions. After all, it is not as if those consequences are difficult to foretell. So when the President astonished the nation with his announcement on Thursday that he was unilaterally appointing the Gecom Chairman, the immediate question which leapt into the minds of many was what his larger objective could be. Of course there were those in the opposition who from the very beginning had decided what the end-game was, and here was the Head of State in their view seemingly reaffirming their favourite incantation about his party. More moderate voices, however, were still nonplussed that he would have taken this route.
After three lists and ten months of dithering we are now presented with an octogenarian Chairman, who, if his remarks to reporters last week are anything to go by, sounds like an innocent abroad. Now it is not as if Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo’s lists were a perfect template in terms of suitable candidates, but there were certainly some quite appropriate names inserted among the rest, and a few who were outstanding nominees for the post, more especially in the first and third submissions. These had intimate knowledge of our electoral system and in two instances, direct or indirect experience of the conduct of elections here. By no stretch of the imagination, therefore, could it be claimed that Justice James Patterson ‒ his distinguished legal career notwithstanding ‒ was more ‘fit and proper’ than these men.
There was, in addition, the matter of his age, since at eighty-four, the Justice is likely to be placed under enormous strain by the tensions which characterize relations between our political parties. That he seems blissfully unaware of what is involved is indicated by the fact that when the President called him on Thursday and made him the offer, he seems to have accepted right away, being sworn in that same evening. There was no, ‘Mr President, perhaps I need time to consider this…’ or anything of that ilk.
It might not be an outlandish prognostication, therefore, to suggest that when Mr Patterson becomes personally acquainted with the realities of the political circus, he may not feel he has the strength to go all the way to 2020. This will be especially so if he comes under an avalanche of criticism for decisions made on a casting vote, for example.
Several commentators have drawn attention to the fact that the President is being Janus-faced when he said that he had no problem with Mr Patterson’s age. He certainly had such problems with the ages of Cecil Kennard and Prem Persaud, Chairmen of the Police Complaints Authority and the Public Utilities Commission respectively, both distinguished jurists who discharged their duties commendably, and both of whom were younger than James Patterson. They were given little notice, and were told in unvarnished terms that their ages were the issue.
Furthermore, Mr Patterson has worked for the government on the Commission of Inquiry into the prison riot, and is an advisor to the Attorney General. He will not in consequence be perceived as entirely neutral in some quarters, with the inevitable conclusions being drawn from that.
The central question in this matter, of course, is whether the President’s action is constitutional. There is a significant body of legal and other opinion which says it is not. Writing in his column today, Mr Ralph Ramkarran said: “…that ‘if the Leader of the Opposition fails to submit a list as provided for,’ only then can the President proceed unilaterally to make an appointment of a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge.” (See page 7) He goes on to say that his understanding is that the Leader of the Opposition has submitted a list and the President’s appointment is therefore “void.”
Is it a case, therefore, that the President does not know that his decision is unconstitutional, or is it that he does not care whether it is or not? Considering his earlier idiosyncratic interpretation of the Constitu-tion which kerfuffled even the ordinary citizen in the street, but which he clung to with great tenacity in order to justify his rejection of the lists, one is tempted to the latter conclusion.
In terms of consequences, did President Granger not expect that the opposition would take him to court if he made a unilateral appointment? Well, yes, undoubtedly he did, because they gave him warning of this very early on. As such, therefore, he must have been aware that this could now cause a delay in the timing of elections, more particularly if an appeal was made to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Then there is the matter of Justice Patterson, who if he resigned before the national elections, say, would occasion another delay, even supposing the President doesn’t take ten months to make an announcement, and even supposing his decision does not go to court.
The critical issue in these instances is, if he could foresee the consequences, did he intend those consequences? If he did intend those consequences, is he actually playing for a delay in election timing? If he is playing for a delay, is he hoping that the oil money rolls in before his party faces an electorate perhaps? Or is there some more obscure plan in his mind? In addition, if he does have a plan, was a unilateral decision his intention all along, or has the plan evolved over the last ten months?
Certainly if it is to delay an election, he won’t have the help of the AFC the next time a poll rolls around; it will have completely evaporated. The President calculated correctly if he thought that party would support him now; to their eternal discredit, they have. However, a benefit in the short term will face him with a problem in the longer one, because this is the AFC death knell. The AFC was already moribund as things were, but it has now demonstrated it is no longer an independent party, rather an arm of APNU, or more properly, the PNC. It is the usual case of power winning out over principle.
The WPA has not yet met on the matter, but from the President’s point of view its contribution is symbolic rather than political, and will have little weight in his calculations.
Non-co-operation from the opposition, which President Granger would certainly have expected, would hardly discommode him, since political co-operation with the other side does not appear to have been accorded much space on his agenda in any case. There is, however, one aside which should be mentioned: Mr Jagdeo’s announcement that his party would not participate in the border committee is a poor decision on his part; there is a world of difference between local party political matters, and national ones involving the protection of our sovereignty. Even in the darkest days of Burnhamism, Dr Jagan always co-operated on that one issue, while refusing to do so on many others, and Mr Jagdeo should take his inspiration from that nationalist approach.
Whether the Head of State thought about some of the other consequences of his unilateral decision is impossible to judge. If he did, then he can be accused of lacking a larger vision of our political circumstances. Both sides have now retreated fully into their familiar hostile camps to play their traditional roles, and the least that can be said is that it is not a recommended starting point for constitutional reform. We are bombarded with polemic, not least from the opposition, it might be added, whose punctiliousness with regard to the facts often leaves something to be desired. The problem is always that this polarization in the political sphere comes to infect every aspect of our lives and generates distrust even in social relations, giving rise to unnecessary tensions. As for President Granger, his notions of social cohesion appear to have validity only on those days when religious festivals fall.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the President’s action is that in circumstances where for decades the PNC and its constituency had no vested interest in democracy, almost three years ago, they saw that in alliance with others they could have a seat at the democratic table for the first time since 1964. Demographic shifts and disillusionment on the part of some with the PPP gave them a slim majority in 2015; a far cry from the days when they saw themselves as a minority permanently locked out of office, with fraud as their only option for attaining power.
As leader of his party, Mr Granger is not setting the example to his constituency of cultivating a democratic approach, and cementing a commitment to that in the longer term. On the contrary, his decision, whether he intends it or not, conveys the impression to all and sundry that he has put his party into reverse. Bringing the PNC into the democratic club was a major step forward, structurally speaking, for this nation, even if it was not openly recognized as such. It is hard to think that President Granger might want to put that in jeopardy.