Once again, we appeared to have reached an impasse in the functioning of the Opposition in our parliamentary democracy. Immediately, we have a potentially fatal situation where the Opposition appears unable to sort out its leadership issues to perform its constitutional duties. More fundamentally, it appears unwilling to perform those duties in accordance to the rules and traditions that have historically guided Oppositions to govern their countries, together with the Executive.
To address the first disability, most Guyanese were pleased when the People’s National Congress (PNC), as the major Opposition party, held internal elections to choose their leader and top leadership in the persons of Aubrey Norton and a 15-member Central Executive Committee (CEC). The latter soon demanded that the former be appointed as Leader of the Opposition (LOO) and also the Representative of the APNU/AFC List (RAAL). Now, this proved nettlesome since these positions had been previously filled and the incumbents, namely Joseph Harmon and David Granger, were still in place.
The office of the LOO quickly pointed out that Harmon was the holder of a constitutional office and as such, could only be removed through the appropriate constitutional measure, in this case Article 184. This states that one-third of the Opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) would have to indicate their No Confidence in the present LOO and thereafter a vote of 50 per cent of the total Opposition MPs – which includes a number from the AFC – would be determinative. A second hurdle would also have to be crossed by Mr Norton, who would have to become an MP even if Mr Harmon is removed as the LOO. Opposition MPs can only be appointed or removed by Mr Granger, the RAAL, who Mr Norton also wants removed.
It is clear, therefore, that the situation can only be settled by Mr Granger on his own volition since there are no legal means to remove him as the RAAL. But even if he were to resign as RAAL, the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) that governs the office specifies that he would be succeeded by his Deputy, who is the leader of the AFC, Khemraj Ramjattan. The latter has now declared that he sees no need to change either the LOO or the RAAL, and we seem to have an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, which will paralyse the Opposition for a while.
But we hope that the issue will eventually be resolved and the Opposition will confront the second issue raised above: normative standards for an Opposition. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we will quote extensively from a document issued after a seminar by the “Majority and Minority Parties in African Parliaments”.
“The Opposition in Parliament has a duty to offer voters a credible alternative to the Government in office to make the majority accountable. To be a credible alternative, however, the Opposition must also be ready to exercise the responsibilities to which it aspires on a lasting basis. In other words, it must have a programme which it is ready to implement. In democracy, political life is enriched by free competition of political programmes; it is impoverished by rivalry based on personal ambitions which merely disqualifies it in the eyes of public opinion.
“Moreover, the Opposition in Parliament must show itself to be responsible and be able to act in a statesmanlike manner. It must engage in constructive and responsible opposition by making counter-proposals. In its action, the Opposition must not seek to hinder pointlessly the action of the Government but rather endeavour to encourage it to improve such action in the general interest.
“The duties of the Opposition are by their very nature defined by political and behavioural rules; not by constitutional norms or parliamentary texts. The duties, therefore, do not require codification. What is required is for the members of the Opposition – like all Members of Parliament – to exercise their responsibilities with due respect for the Constitution and the laws in force. They must, of course, refrain from advocating violence as a means of political expression. Indeed, their action must be in keeping with a spirit of mutual tolerance and a quest for dialogue and concerted action.”