Does a Member of Parliament have a right of conscience or must he exercise blind loyalty to a party or a political leader? Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and his A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) colleagues insisted that loyalty to the party and party leader is a democratic expectation. One of their MPs, Charrandas Persaud, believed that his right of conscience is supreme and on December 21, 2018, in the Parliament of Guyana, he exercised that right.
The No-Confidence Motion introduced by the Leader of the Opposition was thrashed as a waste of time by Prime Minister Nagamootoo and by the leadership of APNU/AFC. As it turns out, the Parliament approved the No-Confidence Motion by a vote of 33 to 32. One Government MP, Charrandas Persaud, representing Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) as a Member of the APNU/AFC coalition Government, agreed with the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Opposition that the Government has not met its obligations and that the Parliament, speaking for the people, has lost confidence in the Government. As a consequence, elections are now due within 90 days, according to the Constitution. Thirty-three MPs decided that the people must have a chance now, rather than wait until August 2020, to put into place a new Government.
While the Government and some of its supporters may find this inconvenient, it is democracy at work. Democracy is not always smooth; it can be a messy affair. Winston Churchill once said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Charrandas Persaud demonstrated the messiness of the democratic process. He was expected to adhere to party loyalty, he preferred his conscience.
Immediately after Persaud announced his vote, he was pounced upon, deemed by his colleagues, many of whom are his close friends, a Judas, and a traitor. The Government paper enshrined this designation for eternity as it had a full front page with Persaud’s picture and the caption “JUDAS”. He was threatened and in the process had to leave the country in fear for his life. The Public Security Minister and the Government now seek praise for granting Persaud safe passage. At no point did they consider that this was not a favour done on behalf of Persaud, but that this was a constitutional obligation on the Government to ensure safety for all citizens. He may have voted to end the Government’s tenure and for new elections, but he was exercising his right and he not only deserves safe passage, he has a right to safe passage. As hurtful as his action maybe to those in Government, he was exercising his democratic rights and his Government had the obligation to ensure his safety.
Persaud conceded that he voted for the motion of No-Confidence because his conscience would not permit him to continue excusing the corruption and abuses of the Government he helped installed and kept in power the last three-and-a-half years. His conscience told him that the Government had failed the people, particularly the people who live next to and near him, many of whom are his friends and family. He saw these people every day, he saw their agony, he saw them plunged into poverty by the uncaring and insensitive Government for whom Persaud had to vote for every time he attended Parliament. He admitted that for three-and-a-half years he voted according to instructions from his party leaders, even though many times it was against his conscience.
Prime Minister Nagamootoo insisted, however, that Persaud did not have the right to conscience. Nagamootoo demanded party loyalty. In his perspective of parliamentary democracy, party loyalty was supreme. Persaud countered that his right to conscience was supreme in the democracy that we live in or then it would not be a democracy, but an autocracy. In Persaud’s perspective, conscience cannot be subsumed by cultish bigotry and loyalty to a party or party leader.
What played out in Parliament on December 21, 2018, was the arrogance of democracy, demanding full subservience, versus the gentle pull of conscience. While it is important in a parliamentary democracy to maintain discipline among MPs, these MPs are also accountable to people. The people’s dissatisfaction, their perils and their agony must be able to move an MP’s conscience beyond cultish subservience to a leader. The thousands of sugar workers who lost their jobs, the thousands suffering because of high tax burdens and because of corruption and abuses of their Government moved Persaud’s conscience. It proved that conscience is a powerful tool to stop those excesses that make democracy imperfect.