A new layer of complication has been introduced into Guyana’s already Byzantine politics. This is the matter of the two letters, now grafted on to the fundamental question of the constitutionality of the government’s actions following the vote of no-confidence on December 21 last year. It would appear that President David Granger sent two letters to GECOM Chairman James Patterson prior to his departure for Cuba, both dated February 25. These were in response to one he had received from the Chairman indicating that the Elections Commission could not deliver credible polls within the three-month time-frame required by the Constitution, and stating that the provision of additional funds would be required.
The first of these letters, which we reproduced verbatim in our edition of February 27, said that “the Government of Guyana is committed to doing everything possible to ensure that the commission is provided with the financial resources and has sufficient time to conduct credible elections.” The President then went on to “urge” GECOM “therefore, to commence preparations for the conduct of [General and Regional Elections].” He also committed to seeking parliamentary approval to “ensure that an agreement can be reached given both the constitutional requirement and GECOM’s capability.”
The second letter, which as said above, is also dated February 25, references the first of that date. In it the President requests the initiation of consultations with Patterson on the readiness of GECOM for the conduct of general and regional elections in 2019. He also noted that GECOM, as a constitutional agency, would require a new appropriation of funds approved by the National Assembly for the conduct of the polls.
Leaving entirely aside the cardinal issue of the government’s failure to abide by the Constitution and whether the Elections Commission really needs a new appropriation of funds from the National Assembly – some reputable legal authorities say that is not necessary – the question arises as to whether the two letters are in fact compatible. It is a semantic matter which has probably only grabbed the headlines because of the fact that the two items of correspondence were not released in the same way, and in the case of the second, to those who should have had access to it.
At a meeting of GECOM on Thursday, questions were asked by the opposition commissioners about the fact that they were only given a copy of the first letter at their Tuesday meeting, and not the second. In a statement released subsequently, they said they believed the second letter was only sent to the commission “after it was exposed at the [February 28] Press Conference of the Leader of the Opposition that the letter posted on the Ministry of the Presidency’s website significantly differed in content from the one circulated to Commissioners on the 26th February, 2019.”
They went on to remark that the Chairman’s defence had been that in his opinion, the second letter did not supersede the first. They did, however, maintain that Government-nominated Commissioner Vincent Alexander had expressed a contrary view that it did in fact supersede the first letter, although he had told this newspaper that the correspondence appeared to be sequential, and he saw no contradiction. “One says start preparations,” we quoted him as saying, and “the other says I want to consult with you on your preparations.”
Certainly, at the Tuesday meeting when only the first letter had been seen by the Commissioners, Opposition-nominated Commissioner Sase Gunraj had placed a positive interpretation on it, welcoming it and saying that it spoke for itself. We quoted him as saying that it “encourages GECOM to start planning for the conduct of general and regional elections … I hope this is sufficient to have the process expedited and the continued breach of the constitutional prescriptions by GECOM can cease by the holding of elections, as mandated.”
Whether he was justified in reading it that way is very much a moot point; the formulation of the wording, and more particularly, what is implied by the President’s urging of commencing poll preparations, is suitably imprecise, since there is no context for it. Furthermore, Mr Gunraj seems to have disregarded the fact that the reference to constitutional requirements is modified by the addition of “and GECOM’s capability.” In any case, exactly what the President meant by the term constitutional requirements is not obvious either. He could have been referring to the fact that the Constitution caters for an extension to the three-month elections date upon the approval of two thirds of the 65 elected members of the National Assembly. As such, therefore, Commissioner Alexander’s interpretation is quite credible.
One presumes that the Head of State on reviewing what he had written the first time around, decided to make it more explicit. If so, then it is a caution about taking due care in such sensitive matters. Whatever the case, however, there is absolutely no justification for Chairman Patterson not presenting the second letter to the Commissioners; the issue is not whether he thinks it is in any way different from the first, but the fact that it is his bounden duty to make all relevant data available to the Commissioners, more particularly when it involves a letter from the President about the elections. As it is, he opens himself to charges, whether or not they have any foundation, that he was avoiding being candid with them.
The real nonsense in relation to this matter got underway with Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and Minister of State Joseph Harmon. As mentioned indirectly above, Mr Jagdeo was the first one to draw public attention to the second letter, which he had seen on the Ministry of the Presidency’s website. He wasted no time in accusing the government of perpetrating a fraud by sending one letter to the Chairman of GECOM and releasing a different one to the public. He went on to allege that the Ministry of the Presidency had altered the contents of the first letter since it was unhappy with it, a position which we reported he insisted on maintaining for several minutes, even though reporters pointed out that there were in fact two letters. “This is a fraudulent act,” he was quoted as telling the media.
Well clearly he hadn’t read his documents with the rigour that is required in such circumstances, and his language was both irresponsible and tendentious, not to mention inappropriate. If he cannot be bothered to do his homework, he has various people around him who could evaluate the papers on which he is expected to offer comment, such as Mr Nandlall. The country could certainly do without reckless, not to mention inaccurate, commentary at a tense time like this.
As it was, Mr Jagdeo did not have the last political (as opposed to GECOM) word. That distinction went to Minister of State Joseph Harmon, whose ministry as said earlier, only released the second letter. It was not that he repudiated the claims by Mr Jagdeo, which after all he was right about, as the way in which it was done, which competed in terms of unsuitable language with the Leader of the Opposition’s less than felicitous mode of expression.
“This is an attack on the religion of the President, an attack on order and good governance and he [Mr Jagdeo] must be condemned in the strongest possible terms for this level to which he has sunk in this press conference. I am also calling on all right-thinking Guyanese to condemn the Leader of the Opposition for this level to which he has sunk and for which he is trying to take the society, into the pit to which he has descended,” the Minister of State trumpeted. At the very least, he must have had right-thinking Guyanese, no matter what they thought of Mr Jagdeo, scratching their heads as to how he had attacked the President’s religion.
Neither Mr Jagdeo nor Mr Harmon was ever noted for their capacity for diplomatic or prudent expression. Perhaps both of them need higher level advice on how to deliver themselves of politic statements in tense times so as not to ratchet up the temperature, more especially Mr Harmon, since he is a high-level official spokesman of government.
That said, there is considerable thoughtlessness on the part of his ministry where PR matters are concerned. In this instance, there was no excuse for not disclosing both letters to the public, and not just the second; there was no hiding the first since it had already been seen by GECOM, and even if that had not been so, there would have been no hiding it anyway. Since the President did not withdraw the first letter, but arguably amplified or clarified it with a second, he doesn’t seem to have regarded it as secret either. In any event, the public was entitled to see both letters.
Many of Guyana’s politicians have a taste for casuistry. This little tale of two letters, shorn of the more substantive issues, demonstrates how an otherwise comparatively straightforward matter to sort out, can be seized upon, made more complicated than it is, and even invested with a serpentine quality. It would be nice if the politicians could remember that the nation could do without all the extra stress that such matters can bring in their wake, and watch their language.