The President has virtuoso skills when it comes to issuing soothing, anodyne statements which, on their face, appear to be well advised and equitable, but which in reality mask undeclared intentions. His problem is that the public is no longer deceived by the overlay which sheaths his utterances following a series of questionable decisions on critical matters. The inevitable result is that now his credibility is under strain. When he first embarked on his presidential mission, even some opposition supporters gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was presidential in his bearing, eloquent and urbane, and not given to pillorying his opponents in savage fashion. This was quite unlike Mr Jagdeo, for example, whose sometimes crass style belied his status as Head of State.
Having a presidential style, however, is not the same thing as being possessed of presidential wisdom, and where the latter is concerned, Mr Granger’s inadequacies have not gone unnoticed during his period in office. What has emerged is that despite the fact that the PNC re-entered the political lists in a conventional way for the first time since 1964 – admittedly as part of a coalition – and despite the implication that they would adopt a more constitutional mode and evince a greater adherence to the rule of law, the President’s vision in certain respects appears to hark back to a less democratic era. Not in a total sense, of course; the population enjoys some important personal freedoms and there is no abridgment of freedom of expression. In a general sense too, there is less of an obsession about controlling every facet of endeavour in the society which so afflicted the PPP regime.
However, what is clear is that President Granger has a very elastic approach to the Constitution, which he has stretched to afford him constructions of language which accord neither with its letter nor its spirit, but which appear designed to give his party an advantage and to delay new elections. He has been aided and abetted in this by Attorney General Basil Williams, among others, who has resorted to the courts with some bizarre legal cases and interpretations.
At the present time, we are in a constitutional limbo. As everyone knows, following the vote of no confidence in the National Assembly on December 21, the Constitution requires that the Head of State call an election within three months. The expiry date, so to speak, is March 21, but Mr Granger has made no move to name an election day. Sheltering behind a docile GECOM, where his unilaterally appointed Chairman has used his casting vote in commission meetings to reflect the President’s wishes, he appears to want the election date postponed beyond the constitutional date.
As everyone knows too, that can only be done in the National Assembly with the agreement of the opposition. With a view to achieving that end, the President invited the Opposition Leader to a meeting last week, which the latter reluctantly attended. Mr Jagdeo did, however, place three conditions for consideration on the agenda, the first of which was the date of general and regional elections that the opposition wants held before the expiration of the present voters’ list on April 30, 2019.
As it was, Mr Jagdeo reported that following the encounter on Wednesday, they never got further than the first item on the agenda, i.e. the election date, and there simply was no agreement on that. No one out there in the electoral universe is the least bit surprised. The President followed habit and lapsed into unreal conciliatory mode, telling the media that the engagement was “very fruitful and very useful,” while the Opposition Leader, whose account clearly reflected somewhat more of the tone and substance of what had actually transpired, sounded as if he had attended an entirely different meeting from the Head of State.
That said, Mr Jagdeo let it be known that he had not been optimistic about the outcome of the encounter in any case. “This government has a track record of duplicity and I have seen nothing to indicate to me that they will act differently today,” we quoted him as saying. “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 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.”
Mr Jagdeo went on to inform the media that the President had indicated he was prepared to discuss a date, but that GECOM would have to be ready. The Head of State had apparently suggested a joint meeting with the elections commission, which the Opposition Leader had refused, and was reported as subsequently telling the President that GECOM could not override the Constitution. He was quoted as saying: “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?’” It is a pertinent point.
The President apparently told him that he would meet with the whole commission, which he did on Friday. It produced no result, since as we reported, the commission’s two sides held onto their previous positions. The three government-nominated commissioners said house-to-house registration was necessary to “sanitise” the list of electors before an election could be held, while the opposition-nominated commissioners maintained elections should be mounted before the April 30 electors’ register deadline. The demand for house-to-house registration ignores the fact that successful local government elections were held as recently as November, among other things, and that the option of using the claims and objections period to clean up the list has been cited. The advice which GECOM had given prior to Friday with respect to readiness for elections is that the earliest they could manage is July.
The view had been expressed in various quarters with experience that the three months period allowed enough time to prepare for elections, but now that the government has frittered much of that away, Mr Jagdeo said that the 50 days (to April 30) was more than enough time to prepare. But in a statement following his meeting, President Granger made reference to the court matters, and what can only be described as his government’s insubstantial challenges to the decision of the Chief Justice in relation to the legitimacy of the no-confidence vote. On the basis of what will take place in the courts, “We are moving towards elections,” he said, “but GECOM is in charge of elections not the Executive. I cannot decide when elections will be held; GECOM has to advise.” The elections commission was an autonomous agency, he said further in a statement, and neither the President nor the Executive could interfere in its work under the Constitution.
Well interfering in its work is one thing, and setting an elections date is quite another. It can only be repeated that GECOM is not in charge of deciding an election date; the President is, although he will take advice on the commission’s state of readiness.
This is not all rocket science, remarked Mr Jagdeo with regard to elections preparations. He is right. It is not. And President Granger cannot pretend otherwise.
As for the Head of State himself, he says there is no crisis. He is wrong. Or at least, there will be one if there is no election before the end of the life of the voters’ register. He will find that out when international pressure is relentlessly applied, as it was after former President Ramotar prorogued Parliament. And it doesn’t matter how reassuringly he phrases it, or how soporifically, it will not change the reality of operating outside the framework of the Constitution, and the stress from all sides that that will bring in its wake.
Many voters must be asking themselves, what does he want an extension of a few months for anyway? What advantages could it possibly bring his government which outweigh all the onerous disadvantages, no matter how he describes them? “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,” President Granger said in his statement. He should not be surprised if a significant portion of the electorate remains unconvinced.