The Constitution of a country is its highest law and has been called “the law of lawmaking” for the State. It structures and limits the powers of the three branches of Government – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary – and between the organs of the State and the people. Our present Constitution was first promulgated in 1980 and was revised extensively in 2000, after countrywide hearings.
While there has been expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of our Constitution, and “constitutional change” has become a mantra during election campaigns, the unalloyed consensus in Guyana, and in all constitutional democracies, is that the laws of the Constitution must be obeyed by all the institutions its speaks to, if anarchy and the rule of the jungle are not to take over. Sometimes, the wording of a constitutional stipulation may be elliptical and gnomic and these, it is accepted, can be taken to the judicial branch of the Government for an authoritative interpretation, in concrete instances of its operation.
But in others, the Constitution speaks in clear, precise and unambiguous terms and these should not precipitate any controversy. So, for instance, when a “majority” in our 65-member House of Assembly was constitutionally required, it had always been accepted by all parties in that Assembly that this was 33 seats, since this number would always be greater that the highest possible alternative of 32 seats, configured in whatever possible permutation or combination. Thus in 2011, when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won the presidency on account of garnering the plurality of the popular votes, in the National Assembly, the A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) 26 seats and the Alliance For Change’s (AFC) seven seats automatically constituted a “majority”, which the PPP with 32 seats accepted, for instance when those two parties were allowed to name the Speaker of the House and have the majority in most standing committees.
In 2015, when the APNU and AFC formed a pre-election coalition and acquired 33 seats compared with the PPP’s 32, with that universally accepted majority of the House, they were able to name the President as well as use their majority in the House, to pass their budgets. Not a squeak was heard from that time to 2018 about the nature of the majority on which the Government’s legitimacy was based. And then came the No-confidence Motion of December 21, 2018 when with all 65 MP present, one MP from the Government benches voted with the Opposition’s 32 to give the latter the majority. And evidently having lost their reason, all judgement from the Government evidently fled to “brutish beasts”, after an initial acceptance of their new circumstance.
Tossed a straw, the Government now insisted that to obtain a majority of 65 MPs, one had to first divide them by two to obtain 33 plus one ½ person and then “round up” by presumably taking the other half body to make the latter “whole” and then add another body to give 34. In the concrete instance in the National Assembly, when the no-confidence vote was being taken when the Opposition received 33 votes one, the Government now insisted that one more vote from the Government benches was necessary to produce the “majority” of 34 to 31.
And it is this contention more than any other that the People’s National Congress-led Government raised in the courts, which demonstrated its callous betrayal of constitutional governance by debasing the constitutional rules in the eyes of the people. As the Chief Justice noted in her oral judgement, if Charrandas Persaud had not voted with the Opposition, the Government would have blithely accepted that it had the “majority” of 33 to defeat the No-confidence Motion as had been touted by the PNC’s Chief Whip when she taunted the Opposition to “bring it on!”
After the Chief Justice ruling that 33 is the majority of 65, the Government signalled they would be appealing. It is our hope, that even at this late stage, the Government would recognise the cynicism it is engendering in the populace on democratic norms.