President David Granger and Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday emerged from a high stakes meeting without reaching an agreement on a date for the holding of general elections and there are conflicting accounts of how the talks went.
Granger has described the engagement as “very useful and very fruitful” while Jagdeo indicated that it came to an end without much being achieved since the Head of State opted not to name an elections date.
The meeting was held at the behest of Granger, who extended an invitation a week ago. Jagdeo had initially expressed reservations about attending but subsequently said he would do so in the national interest. This is the duo’s second meeting and following yesterday’s both sides agreed to a third, once the president has engaged GECOM on its readiness to hold elections. GECOM has already said that July is the earliest period for elections but Jagdeo insists that there is sufficient time between now and April 30th for preparations to be executed and the elections held.
“We did not get past the first item on the agenda which is a date for elections,” Jagdeo told the media moments after the hour-long meeting came to an end.
The former president and his delegation, which comprised presidential candidate Irfaan Ali, opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira and PPP/C MPs Anil Nandlall and Juan Edghill arrived 15 minutes late for the 11am meeting. No explanation was offered to the media.
As he was preparing to enter the presidential complex, Jagdeo made it clear that he was not optimistic about a fruitful engagement.
“Frankly speaking, I am not optimistic nevertheless we are responding to what a substantial part of our community wants, which is to engage,” he told reporters before adding that this is the opposition’s “last” attempt to engage the government.
The passage of the December 21, 2018 no confidence motion following a ‘yes’ vote from former government MP Charrandass Persaud was to have led to elections within three months. The government, dissatisfied with a High Court ruling that the passage of the motion was valid has filed an appeal and has indicated its intention of going all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). The Guyana Court of Appeal will hear oral arguments in those appeals next week; no date for a possible decision has been given.
Jagdeo who arrived in the same vehicle with Teixeira and Ali told reporters that he was hoping for a resolution, despite all that he has seen so far. “This government has a track record of duplicity and I have seen nothing to indicate to me that they will act differently today. I hope that this is not a PR stunt. This is all they are interested in but the people of Guyana must be the judge. We’re coming here. We put the issues on the agenda [and] the the president says he is prepared to consider them. If he does not [then] there will be no extension. We are not going to go to parliament to extend the time. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
He said too that the talk of prorogation of parliament is “pure nonsense”.
“The constitution now overrides all of the president’s power 106 (6) and 106 (7). There has been a passage of a no confidence vote. The president has lost any right to prorogue parliament at this point in time,” he said.
Accompanying the president during the meeting were Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, government Chief Whip Amna Ally, Minister of State Joseph Harmon, Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Sydney Allicock, Attorney General Basil Williams and Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman.
When Jagdeo emerged, he made it clear that no agreement was reached but that the door is open for another meeting which according to him will have to be held before March 21st.
He informed that the president indicated that he is prepared to discuss a date but GECOM will have to be ready so “I said to him clearly you are the president of Guyana, you have a duty to uphold the constitution of Guyana. GECOM is a creature of the constitution, GECOM cannot override the constitution and therefore unless we have a discussion on the date I am not prepared to move forward on any other issue on the agenda.”
He said that the president suggested a joint meeting with GECOM, an offer which he declined. “I said to him no. We have absolutely no interest in meeting GECOM jointly, that he should meet GECOM himself because he has the duty as president to call elections…We are not accepting them going to house-to-house registration because house-to-house registration will delay the elections for at least eight months. We are not interested in that at all.”
Jagdeo told reporters that during the meeting, he made it clear that there must be “safeguards” if necessary to ensure credible elections by working together. “The state can pay for three polling agents from both parties to sit in every polling place to ensure only people who are eligible to vote so that you don’t have to worry about the quality of the list or padding etcetera,” he listed as one possibility.
He insisted that GECOM cannot override the constitution. “If GECOM is not ready for two years I asked him then ‘does that mean that we never have elections in Guyana again if GECOM is never ready?’”
According to Jagdeo, the president responded saying that that he will meet with the whole commission but did not say when. He said that he accepted an offer to meet again once that engagement with GECOM is held and that a date before April 30th is announced.
“I believe it is a credible proposal to have elections before the 30th of April. I said at this point in time, we are not going to extend the life of the government unless there is an agreement to a date that is a credible and close to the constitutional requirement,” he stressed.
“The time is ticking so after March 21st the government becomes unconstitutional and I made that quite clear to him….The ball is in his court,” he said before pointing out that another meeting with the president after March 21st will be “unnecessary” given the absence of an “agreement to extend the life of the government at this time.” The extension he reiterated can only happen is the president sets a “credible” elections date.
“We believe that (April 30th) gives adequate time to complete all the tasks with the help of the government and the opposition. GECOM can have all the tasks completed that would allow them to have credible elections without disenfranchising our people,” he said.
Like the government when it was in opposition, Jagdeo informed that the PPP will advocate for sanctions against the administration if no elections are held at least in keeping with its proposal and this will come in the form of playing the speech Granger made following the prorogation of parliament in 2014 to the international community.
He also levelled accusations that the three government commissioners are taking instructions from Congress Place.
“I said to him (Granger) you have a duty as president but also leader of the party to move …your party has been threatening war, they have picketed, they’re putting pressure on GECOM and the three commissioners that are political commissioners representing the government have been the ones who have been delaying the elections. I made that clear too to the president,” he said.
Jagdeo insisted that elections can be held comfortably in 50 days. This 50 days would end on April 30th or just before. He explained that 32 days is needed for nomination and the rest of the time for notifying the parties prior to nomination day. Every activity other activity associated for the holding of elections could be done simultaneously, he said adding that in addition to 12000 person trained, teachers who can be added to this number can undergo a one week intensive training session.
Ballots can be printed and a claims and objections period can be held within the 50 days, as well he said.
Asked if he is worried that using his model might open the door to claims that the elections are not free and fair, especially if the PPP wins, Jagdeo said that it is for this reason he has suggested that safeguards be put in place.
“There are lots of things that can be done. This is not all rocket science,” he said adding “This government doesn’t want to go to elections. They’ve seen the writing on the wall. They have done their polls. They are losing badly [and] they are hoping that this delay they can spend up more money… and go back on the ground and make a new set of promises and it will change their electoral fortune. It will not.”
Jagdeo in response to an invitation to attend the meeting had proposed that the meeting focus “exclusively on the date for these elections” and also proposed several conditions, which included the naming of a date for elections before the expiration of the validity of the present voters’ list on April 30, 2019 and a cessation to the awarding of contracts by the state after March 21, 2019.
In the letter sent to Harmon, Jagdeo proposed for the consideration of President Granger that,
i) The date of the general and regional elections to be held before expiration of the present voters’ list on April 30, 2019;
ii) No new contracts to be awarded by the State, including Regional Democratic Councils, and, State-owned corporations after March 21, 2019;
iii) No new agreements, loans, grants, land leases, or any such agreements or contracts after March 21, 2019, that bind Government;
iv) No abuse of State resources for partisan activities/purposes;
v) Access to the state-owned media by all the contesting political parties.
Harmon replied to Jagdeo on Tuesday saying that the contents of the letter were conveyed to the President and he agreed to a meeting where “issues raised” in the letter would be discussed.
`GECOM has to advise’
Granger yesterday insisted that it is GECOM that has to advise when elections could be held.
“Let me make one thing clear, GECOM is an autonomous, GECOM is an independent agency and there is no part of the Constitution which gives the President or the Executive in general, authority to interfere, intervene or intrude in the work of the elections commission,” he said in a video statement which was released shortly after the meeting ended.
“There is no crisis” he said adding that there are issues which have to be resolved and most of those issues will depend on what GECOM says during the upcoming meeting.
Harmon who joined the president explained that in the President’s letter to the GECOM’s Chairman on the 25th of February, the very last paragraph of that letter indicated that he would meet with GECOM on consultations with respect to their readiness for the conduct of elections, more importantly, the financial resources that are required and the timeline that is required.
He explained that GECOM, based on government’s understanding from the Whips, is that they have a timeline when things are to be done and it is that timeline that will have to be address.
“The President has instructed that GECOM be advised about an early meeting; I will follow that up today to determine when best, but it’s going to have to be done within the next three to four days so that we can get from GECOM their readiness to deliver credible elections,” he said.
Harmon added that he believes it is about delivering credible elections and not just any elections that will end up creating “more confusion than they solve problems.”
Granger in his statement said that he is happy to say that the engagement between the Government side and the Opposition side was “very useful and very fruitful.” He said that both sides are working towards the solution of the issues which “now confront us and I think we had a very positive approach,” he said before reminding that there are four processes taking place; one is the importance of the National Assembly; second is the judicial process; third is the Executive process and fourth is GECOM.
The engagement, he pointed out focused largely on the role of GECOM because it is only GECOM an independent agency, which could determine when elections would be held. “The President or the Executive or anybody, cannot intervene, cannot intrude, cannot interfere with the work of GECOM, so we have to allow GECOM to do its work,” he said adding that in that regard, Jagdeo was insistent that a date be set and he is in all fairness, prepared to vary the date based on a vote by the National Assembly.
Granger recounted that on the 25th February, he wrote the Chairman of GECOM indicating that he is prepared to enter consultations with him to ensure that credible elections are held in a short a time as possible and that he would like to meet the entire Commission to determine what their needs are in terms of time and money. “So, the door is open, the Leader of the Opposition has agreed to meet again. The people of Guyana could be assured that we are working to ensure that credible elections are held in as short a time as possible,” he said.
According to Granger, the upcoming meeting with GECOM will be “very respectful engagement and, as the Minister of State has pointed out, we will arrange this as quickly as possible so that the Guyanese people could be satisfied that we are moving towards elections.”
He said that based on what will take place in the courts, “we are moving towards elections, but GECOM is in charge of elections not the Executive. I cannot decide when elections will be held; GECOM has to advise.”
The President’s statement would seem to indicate a major shift as there had been no talk of early elections pending the various court challenges to the motion of no confidence passed on the night of December 21st, 2018.