The aftermath of the vote of no confidence and preparing for elections (Part V)

With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies – we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights. Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.                                                                       

 Patricia Moreira – Managing Director of TI

Last week, Transparency International released the results of the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which showed that of the 180 countries surveyed, more than two-thirds scored less than 50 percent. This indicates that corruption continues to remain a serious problem worldwide. As expected, the following countries scored high marks: Denmark (88), New Zealand (87), Finland (85), Singapore (85), Sweden (85), Switzerland (85), Norway (84), the Netherlands (82), Canada (81), Luxembourg (81), Germany (80), and the UK (80). The United States has dropped four percentage points from a score of 75 to 71, the highest drop in seven years.

Countries that scored poorly were: Somalia (10), Syria (13), South Sudan (13), Yemen (14) and North Korea (14). For the English-speaking Caribbean, the scores were: Barbados (65), Bahamas (65), St. Vincent & the Grenadines (58), Dominica (57), St. Lucia (55), Grenada (52), Jamaica (44), Trinidad & Tobago (41), and Guyana (37). The graph below shows the CPI results for selected Caribbean countries for the last six years.

Guyana made good progress during the period 2015-2017 with an eight point percentage gain. This was mainly due to several governance initiatives that the present Administration had undertaken. These include: the passing of the amendments to the AML/CFT Act to curb drug-trafficking, money laundering and other illicit activities; normalisation of the functioning of Parliament after its prorogation and dissolution; tabling of the outstanding Auditor General’s reports in the National Assembly; activation of the work of the Public Accounts Committee; setting up of the State Assets Recovery Unit (SARU) now SARA; establishment of the Public Procurement Commission; approval of the National Budget before the commencement of the fiscal year; holding of local government elections after hiatus of over 20 years; and activation of the various constitutionally-mandated Commissions.

Regrettably, we have been unable to maintain the momentum. As a result, we have dropped one percentage point in 2018, instead of increasing our points standing by another 4-5 percentage points. In our opinion, the Administration did not focus sufficiently on: (i) ensuring the effectiveness of the above reform initiatives; (ii) persevering with further initiatives; (ii) ensuring greater transparency and competitiveness in government hiring especially for senior positions; and (iii) dealing condignly with Ministers of the Government and Members of Parliament who have indulged in corrupt behaviour and who have violated the Code of Conduct contained in the Integrity Commission Act. Had these actions been taken with all sincerity and dedication, it was possible that we could have surpassed Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica in terms of our CPI score, thereby moving closer to the 50 percent mark. The present conundrum relating to the vote of no confidence in the Government and the holding of fresh elections, if not resolved urgently, is likely to not only militate against any effort to improve Guyana’s standing on the CPI but also reverse the gains we have made so far.

In today’s article, we continue to track developments since the passing of the vote of no confidence in the Government on 21 December 2018.

Chief Justice’s Ruling

Following the vote of no confidence, we had suggested that the Government accept the ruling of the Speaker of the National Assembly and not seek a judicial review since the latter course of action was likely to create tensions in an already charged Guyanese society. We also expressed the view that holding elections one year ahead of scheduled should not pose a difficulty for the Government if it believes that it has done its best in managing the affairs of the State, and the electorate is satisfied with its performance to date. Regrettably, the Administration proceeded to seek the intervention of the court in the hope that the Speaker’s ruling would be overturned.

As it turned out, the Government has found itself once again in an embarrassing position. Last Thursday, the Chief Justice ruled that: (i) the vote of no confidence was valid since at least 33 out of 65 Members of Parliament (MP) constitute a majority, and not 34 as contended by the Government; (ii) the holding of dual citizenship by an MP, although unconstitutional, does not invalidate the actions of that MP; (iii) the President and the Cabinet should have resigned immediately after the vote; and (iv) the Government should remain in office until elections are held.

The Government has since announced its intention to appeal the Chief Justice’s ruling. While it is within its right to do so, it had at the same time agreed to respect the provisions of Article 106(7) of the Constitution, subject to the readiness of GECOM. This commitment was given at a meeting between the President and the Opposition Leader on 9 January 2019. So far, the political Opposition has indicated its unwillingness to agree to an extension of the deadline. With 45 days remaining, it is highly unlikely that the conclusion of the hearing of any appeal to the Guyana Court of Appeal and possibly to the Caribbean Court of Justice, could take place before the 21 March deadline.

The Constitution makes no mention about the readiness or otherwise of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to hold such elections, no doubt leaving the matter for legislators to decide. In the absence of any agreement for an extension of the deadline, GECOM is obliged to call elections within the next 45 days. It ought to have been in a substantial state of readiness, considering that less than three months ago, GECOM had successful pulled off the local government elections which independent observers deemed free and fair. It also ought to have been aware of the provisions of Article 106(7) and be alert to the possibility of having early elections ever since the announcement was made that a motion for a vote of no confidence in the Government was tabled in the Assembly. As such, it should have started to prepare the ground for such eventuality. Regrettably, it would appear that this was not done.

While it is true that there were plans this year to conduct another round of house-to-house registration this year, such plans will have to be delayed until after the elections. The failure by GECOM to set a date for elections within the next 45 days will be a breach of Article 106(7) of the Constitution. The political Opposition has threatened to seek judicial intervention to force GECOM to call elections before 21 March. However, this may not solve the problem, if for whatever reason GECOM is not in a state of readiness. After all, it is neither in the interest of the political parties involved nor the electorate nor the general public to have elections that independent observers are unable to certify as fair and fair and represent the will of the people.

The Government has itself to blame for the present impasse. Rather than accepting the Speaker’s ruling in good faith instead of going all out challenging it,  had it entered into further dialogue with the Opposition on the way forward, it would have been entirely possible that the latter would have agreed to an extension of the deadline. This would have given GECOM enough time to put in place all the arrangements for the conduct of the elections. Political parties desirous of contesting the elections would have had time to get their act together, such as preparing their elections manifestos and holding meetings with countries to explain their programmes and activities if elected to office. However, all is not lost, if the two main political parties can reflect on the implications of their actions, put the national interest first and decide, in collaboration with GECOM, to enter into sincere dialogue aimed at arriving at a realistic date for the holding of elections. We believe that an extension of the deadline to 30 June is not unrealistic.

Last week, we examined the statements made by the PPP presidential candidate about his plans if elected to office. Because of space constraints, we were unable to comment on two items: revival of the housing programme and the allocation of 50,000 house lots; and the construction of a specialty hospital.

Housing Programme

The main objective of the Government’s housing programme is to assist families in need to acquire their own homes. This means that they must not be the owners of existing properties, and they cannot sell their properties in order to acquire house lots from the Government. Once a house lot is granted to a family, construction is to begin within 18 months, failing which the Government will re-possess the land to be reallocated to another deserving applicant. The property also cannot be disposed of within 10 years of the allocation of the house lot without the approval of the Central Housing & Planning Authority. In this case, the property has to be sold to the CH&PA. 

During the period 2008-2015, approximately 4,500 acres of GUYSUCO lands were either sold or transferred to the CH&PA. Of this amount, 1,642 acres in the Eccles-Providence area were sold to the CH&PA at $4 million per acre while the rest were transferred to the Authority free of cost.

Arguably, one of the key successes of the previous Administration was its housing programme which saw thousands of house lots being distributed. However, the programme was tainted with corruption behaviour, as borne out by the results of two forensic audits. Persons who did not meet the established criteria were granted house lots while large tracts of land were allocated to persons who closely associated with in the previous Administration to be developed into residential house lots as well as for other developmental purposes. The ‘Pradoville II’ allocation of house lot fiasco is a prime example. As a result, the current Administration has halted the programme.

If the housing programme is to resume, all past land allocations should first be independently reviewed to ensure that all the criteria for the grant of such lands have been fully met, and corrective action taken where there have been violations. Where the beneficiaries have not met their contractual obligations, the lands should be repossessed.

Construction of Specialty Hospital

The previous Administration had started the construction of a specialty hospital. The contract was awarded for US$18.1 million to Surendra Engineering Corporation which had no previous experience in the construction of health facilities. A mobilization advance of US$3.6 million was paid. However, because of delays, unsatisfactory performance and allegations that Surendra had submitted a fraudulent performance bond, the contract was terminated. The Government sued the contractor for the recovery of the mobilization advance and other associated costs. However, Surendra did not appear in court, and judgment was awarded in the sum of US$4.285 million. It was subsequently learnt that the contractor had left the jurisdiction and it is not clear what further action was taken. It was the same firm that was awarded a contract for the supply of drainage pumps and for which the Audit Office found significant discrepancies and lack of accountability.

Setting aside what happened in relation to the Surendra contract, does it make sense to focus on the construction of a specialty hospital at a time when there are so many problems relating to primary health care? Should we not instead intensify our efforts to improve on the offer of such care to citizens who cannot afford to seek medical attention as private hospitals? The Georgetown Public Hospital is overcrowded with patients. Nurses trained at the expense of the State are leaving in droves to the Caribbean and other countries because of low salaries and poor working conditions. Persons in desperate need of medical treatment have to wait several hours in the Emergency Department to see a doctor. Then, there is the never ending shortage of drugs and medical supplies. At the New Amsterdam Hospital, the mortuary freezers recently broke down, and bodies were left to rot. These are only a few of the problems being experienced in our primary health care system.  

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