As the National Assembly prepares to debate the 2019 budgetary estimates, opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo has signaled that the PPP/C intends to challenge the presence of Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo in the House.
On Friday, Jagdeo told the House that Nagamootoo, while performing the duties of President, was “squatting” as a member of the National Assembly.
“We have had this Prime Minister come here over and over, when he is acting as president, in violation of our constitution, squatting in the Parliament, contrary to the practice of the past and we have allowed this to happen. We plan, Mr. Speaker, to raise this on Monday when we come to consider the estimates,” Jagdeo said referencing articles 96 and 178 (4) of the Constitution.
According to Article 178(4), during any period when a minister is performing the function of the Office of President under article 96, his seat in the National Assembly shall be regarded as vacant and may be temporarily filled.
Article 96, meanwhile, notes that whenever the President is absent from Guyana or considers it desirable so to do by reason of illness or any other cause he may, by direction in writing, authorise any member of the Cabinet, being an elected member of the National Assembly, to perform such of the functions of Office of President as he may specify and the person so authorised shall perform those functions until his authority is revoked by the President or until the functions are resumed by the President.
With President David Granger currently seeking medical attention in Cuba, Nagamootoo is performing the functions of President but has not vacated his seat in the House.
In responding to Jagdeo on Friday, Nagamootoo maintained that the article does not apply to him.
Nagamootoo argued, “I can tell you for sure that Article 178(4) does not apply to the Prime Minister; it says if the Prime Minister is not appointed to perform these functions, any minister will be appointed. So, the provision applies to any minister appointed to perform the duties or functions… and, in any case, there has been a convention that has not been touched, has not been contaminated, except by the attempt today. The Prime Minister performing any functions, one or more, has never been invited to vacate his membership of the National Assembly.”
He added, “If the president leaves the country or is inside the country, under his hands [he can] authorise the Prime Minister to carry out certain functions. We don’t know what those functions are, it could be any function and the President doesn’t have to leave the jurisdiction either to do that, he doesn’t have to…The Prime Minister remains the leader of the House for government business and the Prime Minster remains the First Vice President and the Principal Advisor to the President.”
Nagamootoo suggested that Jagdeo was attempting to force a constitutional crisis.
“Deviousness is what we seeing playing out… you are trying to first divide the members of the government and set us up against each other and then you believe that as throw back, you are now asking for the removal from the House of the Prime Minister because the intention is to first to defeat the budget, the $300 billion budget, to lock down the government, to create a constitutional crisis, and to breed disaffection and rebellion [among] the people of this country. It is diabolical and it has to be answered, it has to be defeated,” he told the House, before adding that the constitution provides that the President is elected and once elected remains the President until he is unelected and the Prime Minister is an elected member of the National Assembly.
“You cannot ipso facto un-elect myself. In fact, I cannot act on bad advice to un-elect myself,” he stressed.
The issue of Nagamootoo sitting in the House while performing the functions of President was first objected to in 2015 by former Attorney General Anil Nandlall.
Nandlall, a PPP/C parliamentarian, had argued that Article 51 provides that “there shall be a Parliament of Guyana which shall consist of a President and a National Assembly.”
He had argued in a letter to the press that “When the Prime Minister or anyone else is performing the functions of President, he is clothed with all the powers, privileges and immunities of the President and is obliged to discharge all the functional responsibilities which devolve upon the office of President. Significantly, during this period, that person is the constituent other half of Parliament; the National Assembly being the other part thereof, as per Article 51 of the Constitution. Therefore the framers of the Constitution could not and could never have contemplated a person standing in the shoes and performing the functions of President ever being part of the National Assembly.”
Nandlall’s letter was a response to an opinion by former Speaker Ralph Ramkarran that there is nothing in the constitution to suggest that a Prime Minister loses his or her position as Prime Minister or Member of Parliament while performing the functions of President.
“Since the holder of a constitutional office, such as the Prime Minister, cannot be deprived of it unless the constitution explicitly provides for it, the Prime Minister continues to hold his or her office while performing the functions of President. The Prime Minister is, therefore, entitled at all times, even when performing the functions of President, to sit and vote in Parliament,” Ramkarran had explained.
He went on to note that there is nothing in the constitution that says, implies, or can be construed as suggesting that the President would temporarily lose or be temporarily deprived of his or her post for any reason. It is only in such a case, if it were possible, would it have been necessary to have a provision for an “acting President.” That there is no such provision in the constitution confirms that a temporary loss of office by the president was never contemplated by the framers. If the president loses his or her post prematurely under Article 178, the Prime Minister does not perform the functions of the president but succeeds to the office as president.