Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

YES, it looks like a breakthrough. But keep holding your breath. This is Guyana.

On Tuesday Guyanese president David Granger met opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo.

They agreed on four possible names to chair the Guyana Elections Commission, otherwise known as Gecom.

If they can get a list of six, it goes to the president for a final choice, and we’re good to go. The election process can move ahead.

But if they can’t fix the six, Guyana remains in deep doo-doo.

On Wednesday, the opposition rejected two suggested names from the president.

Jagdeo was to bring four more possibles on Thursday to continue what a joint statement calls “the process of hammering out.”

By Friday morning when this is in print, all may be clear. Or not. There is plenty stuff you can do with hammers.

Elections should have been held by March 21, three months after Guyana’s government lost a December 21 no-confidence vote. They weren’t, because a legal challenge from the government side activated the pause button.

The Caribbean Court of Justice ruled on June 18 that the no-confidence vote was valid. That cancelled the pause. Which would seem to mean an election after a further three months, by September 18. Time ticks on. As we stand today, that date is less than two months off.

Elections can’t be held without a functioning Gecom, with a chair.

The last chairman James Patterson stepped down on June 24. The CCJ had ruled on June 18 that his appointment in 2017 was unconstitutional.

The other six commissioners are split, three government appointees and three for the opposition.

The CCJ said last Friday that Granger and Jagdeo should act with the “utmost urgency” to appoint a chair.

Granger and Jagdeo seem to have listened, up to a point. We’ll see how far that point is, within the next few days.

Let’s run through the two scenarios.

If we get an agreed chair with Gecom up and running, getting an election by September 18 is still going to be ultra-tight. Arrangements have to stretch to the remote interior. There are staff to train, ballots to print, and a 32-day period from nominations to the poll.

And Gecom has to decide what happens with the voters’ list.

The last list lapsed at the end of April. It contains 633,156 names. The voting age population of Guyana is around 455,000. Perhaps 40 per cent of the list have died or migrated.

Granger has been insistent that credible elections require a new list. That would mean a full house-to-house registration process, which Gecom’s lawyer told the CCJ would take until Christmas.

The opposition say the old list just needs a fast-track clean up, with an opportunity to object to dead or migrated voters, and to claim a listing those who have just turned 18.

Two months is not a lot for even the fastest of fast-track clean-ups.

Now let’s run it the other way – there’s no agreed Gecom chair.

First question, does Guyana have a government?

Following a no-confidence vote, Article 106(6) of the Constitution says: “The Cabinet including the President shall resign.”

But Article 106(7) says: “Notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office” until the election—which sounds to a layman ever-so-slightly different.

The CCJ said last week Friday that Granger’s government should act as a “caretaker”: and “in light of its caretaker role it should be restrained in the use of its legal authority.”

Just how restrained is that?

For Jagdeo, “caretaker” means no cabinet, and no parliament. The government writes pay cheques and keeps routine stuff ticking. No more.

The government side talks different. The cabinet still meets. Says national security minister Khemraj Ramjattan: “We can still have parliament.”

The finance ministry has already asked ministries to start work on the 2020 budget. And talking of budgets, there’s that oil cash coming from early next year.

Can Jagdeo force the government’s hand?

He won’t recognise agreements or legislation from a caretaker government. That includes laws passed in January to set up a sovereign wealth fund. But that stance just affects the longer-term stuff.

He can call public protests. So far, we’ve seen mini-rallies, with a couple of hundred placard-carriers. If Jagdeo pulls tens of thousands, that would count. But the government would hit back. Says Ramjattan: “If they feel they want to create civil strife … we have what it takes to ensure that we have stability.”

He can launch legal challenges. On Tuesday, he warned the chief elections officer he could be in contempt of court if he did not prepare for September 18 elections.

Meanwhile, there is other unfinished business.

That includes corruption charges against Jagdeo’s hand-picked presidential candidate Irfaan Ali (No, Jagdeo won’t be running. The CCJ ruled last year that he can’t have a third presidential term.)

Ali faces corruption charges stemming from land sales during his pre-2015 spell as housing minister. The high court on Monday rejected his attempt to quash the charges. Ali goes back to the magistrate’s court on August 26, then the high court. There’s no way we’ll get a verdict before September 18. That’s one more reason for Granger to play for time.

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