Guyanese stay calm amid turmoil

Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but what occurred in Guyana in the past few months gives us a sense of hope that the country is slowly approaching a degree of political maturity after the people reacted peacefully to what was a major political upheaval in the country’s parliament. It wasn’t always so.

Last December 21st, a sitting government member of the Guyana parliament, Mr. Charrandass Persaud, cast the deciding vote on a no-confidence motion tabled by the main opposition party. The government, which is a coalition of two parties, the majority APNU and the minority AFC, was brought down by Mr. Persaud when he voted for the motion moved against his own government. Persaud was a member of the AFC.

The coalition formed the government in 2015 when it managed to muster a razor thin one-vote majority of 33 seats in the 65-seat parliament. So when Persaud voted in favour of the motion, the government benches felt betrayed and erupted in anger and disbelief. Later that day, Persaud, who is a dual citizen of Guyana and Canada, was escorted by a senior official of the Canadian High Commission to the airport for a flight to Toronto. He said he feared for his life.

The government-appointed speaker of parliament accepted the vote as valid as did the government house leader, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo. So to all intents and purposes the government was required to resign, and to hold elections in 90 days according to the constitution. But the government neither resigned nor agreed to hold an election.

While Guyana is ethnically mixed, about 40 percent of the population are East Indians and 30 percent are African/Black; the two groups generally divide their vote in blocks for the two major parties. They also are prone to excessive, sometimes violent behavior in matters of political importance. However, this time they took their cue from the cool-headed and reserved President David Granger, who leads the largely Afro-supported AFNU party, and did not take to the streets in violent demonstration. The country breathed a sigh of relief as did the Guyanese-Canadian diaspora.

But that was not the end of it. The Government later declared that the vote was invalid because in their view 33 seats do not constitute a majority in the 65-seat parliament. It held that a majority vote should be 34 seats calculated as follows: half of 65 is 32 ½, but one cannot have half a vote, therefore it must be rounded up to 33 votes, making 34 votes a true majority. This they presented to the Guyana Court of Appeal, basing their argument on precedent set in a similar case in the high court of the Caribbean island nation of Anguilla. In a split decision the Court ruled in favour of the Government. So the government survived. Or so it seemed.

The opposition, headed by former president Mr. Barratt Jagdeo, in turn appealed the decision of the Guyana court to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the judicial institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which hears appeals as the court of last resort in both civil and criminal matters from member states. Last Tuesday 18th, the CCJ decided that a majority vote was in fact 33 seats, and upheld the original no-confidence vote. However, the court made no other determination. Instead it asked President Granger and opposition lead Jagdeo to come to an agreement on how to proceed from there with respect to the next election and related matters. If they cannot, then the court will decide for them.

So far the people have reacted as maturely as the leadership, which has used constitutional means to work out their differences. This is a marked departure from the taunting and mutual abuse that once passed for political discourse in the country.

We commend the people of Guyana for their forbearance and mature response having been put to the test for the past seven months. We hope that this becomes the new standard regardless of the important decisions that will be made in a few days.