The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has used simple arithmetic to correct some ‘Fuzzy Maths’ employed by lawyers for the Guyana government to (try to) count its way out of the political crisis created by the ruling APNU Alliance being outvoted in the nation’s parliament by a single vote in a No Confidence Motion piloted by the Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) late last year.
It was a tricky situation from the very beginning, with one of the government’s own parliamentarians breaking with it and supporting the motion.
That single vote, on December 21, 2018, in a 65-seat parliament where the government has a one-seat majority, tilted the result in the opposition’s favor.
The result was a catalogue of potentially catastrophic responses: from the MP who cast the tilting vote being replaced and having to flee the country almost overnight, to the government challenging the accuracy of the sum total of the Speaker’s parliamentary arithmetic.
The regional political tragicomedy comprised many funny scenes.
First, the government’s lawyers legally challenged the Speaker’s ruling that the motion had been carried, arguing that 33 is not a majority – in other words, that 33 votes is not more than 32.
The Guyana High Court upheld the Speaker’s ruling, but the government then appealed to the Guyana Court of Appeal, which overturned the High Court’s ruling and upheld the government’s argument that 33 was ‘a simple majority’ and ‘not an absolute majority’.
The Opposition then appealed to the CCJ, which last week overruled the Appeal Court’s overruling of the High Court’s ruling.
The CCJ’s ruling is also interesting on many legal, constitutional and political fronts.
It found the Motion was successful, which, according to the Guyana Constitution, the Parliament should have been immediately dissolved and new elections held within three months.
It also ruled that while the Guyana Constitution makes it illegal for an MP to have dual citizenship, the MP who cast the tilting vote had to be counted in, as his dual citizenship hadn’t been challenged during the period required by law.
The CCJ ruled too that the President had erred in appointing the Chairman of the country’s Elections Commission, the body which would be responsible for organizing the due elections.
The most interesting part of the ruling, however, was the CCJ’s decision to call on the contesting parties – Government and Opposition – to agree on how they will settle the scores, failing which it will then make a definite ruling on what is to be done.
The response from Guyana has not been unexpected: The government isn’t about to just go with the CCJ’s flow; and the Opposition is not about to engage in any long song-and-dance with the government to delay an election it’s long been hoping, praying and fighting for.
The Guyana President has already made initial public statements indicating he may be looking elsewhere than at strict implementation of the CCJ’s ruling, not accepting the ruling that he acted wrongly in appointing the elections commission’s chief and citing alleged irregularities with the Voters List to suggest elections may not be possible before November 2019.
However, Stabroek News, a leading daily newspaper, editorially accused the President of ‘Tilting at Windmills’ instead of accepting the CCJ’s ruling and preparing to return to the polls as constitutionally required.
Here again, the CCJ has taken a legal stand that does not go down well with a Caribbean government.
It will be interesting to see how the Guyana government will eventually handle its obvious disappointment and discomfort with the ruling.
It is not unthinkable that the Guyana parties to this dispute may retreat into nationalist and partisan shells instead of working together to achieve what one CCJ judge described as ‘a marrying of principles and practicality.’
In a situation where CARICOM is still struggling to have member-states that haven’t yet to fully sign-up, it would be more than just sad if Guyana decides to allow itself to be accused of sacrificing the principle of repatriating final justice to Caribbean courts on the altar of partisan or gubernatorial convenience or expedience.
Guyana has in its hands today perhaps the best opportunity for a CARICOM government and Opposition to show joint faith and trust in the CCJ, to not only pin the lie that any legal mind in London is better than all in the Caribbean, but also to show that Caribbean governments and politicians can and will give at least as much due respect to rulings by Caribbean judges as they have always given to Privy Council judgments.
Guyana has a chance to not only make a big regional mark of respect for the CCJ as a regional body, but also to atone for those other CARICOM nations that have been too long tottering on the brink of rejecting outright the very thought that the Caribbean can judge itself.
Whether it does will be known sooner than later, but whatever its decision on the CCJ’s binding ruling, the undeniable fact remains that the CCJ must be applauded for persevering against all odds in its continuing quest to give regional justice a Caribbean flavour.
The CCJ has for too long suffered from an overdose of regional under-appreciation and its due respect is much too long overdue.
Now it’s time for Caribbean governments to sum-up political rectitude to say to the CCJ: