Guyana’s First Lady Sandra Granger was in Singapore last Saturday for the dedication of the Liza Destiny, Exxon Mobil’s giant floating production storage and offloading vessel, which is due to reach offshore Guyana in September, and soon afterwards hold their first newly-pumped offshore oil.
Guyana’s boom-time is underway. Onshore, MovieTowne is up and running. Coss Cutters opened the first of three Guyana branches a week ago. Massy, ANSA McAL and Republic Bank are fast expanding their well-established Guyana operations.
But as we well know, a roaring resource-based boom needs full democratic, legal and media scrutiny to have any chance of avoiding rampant waste and corruption.
Last time I was in Georgetown, most Guyanese I spoke to sounded deeply cynical. There’s a 60-year history of ethnic polarisation, mismanagement and suspicion which makes Trinidad and Tobago politics look like a model of lovey-dovey and financial rectitude.
On top of that there’s an unresolved—and ill-tempered—constitutional crisis.
Let’s recap. A surprise floor-crosser sprang a pre-Christmas no-confidence vote in David Granger’s government last December 21. That should have meant an election by March 21. Instead, it triggered a string of court cases and an eventual June 18 ruling from the Caribbean Court of Justice (ccj). We still don’t know what happens next.
On June 18, the CCJ asked the opposing parties to discuss, and come back last Monday with agreed suggestions. Granger and opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo didn’t even talk to each other.
The CCJ judges, very sensibly, don’t want to get drawn into the fractious world of Guyanese politics. On Monday, they listened to the lawyers. They asked them for written submissions. If they still can’t agree, it’s back to the court two weeks today, on July 12.
The opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo says there must be an election within a non-negotiable three months. If we count from a July 12 ruling, that would take us to mid-October. His lawyer wants the CCJ to name a date.
David Granger says only he can pick the date. He says there can’t legally be an election without a new voters list, because the old one expired at the end of April. He said last week that the Guyana Elections Commission had told him they could have a list by November.
But on Monday, the Commission’s counsel said the earliest he could promise, was Christmas Day—December 25. The CCJ judges looked visibly surprised. No earlier? Apparently not.
So that would mean a January election, more than one year from the no-confidence vote. One month from Jagdeo’s October date might have been bridgeable. But three more months and counting?
There’s talk now of a November budget. But Jagdeo says anything the government now does is illegal.
One point has been resolved. James Patterson resigned on Tuesday as Elections Commission chairman. The CCJ ruled a week earlier that his 2017 appointment had been unconstitutional.
That kind of moves things forward. But also, it kind of doesn’t.
With no chairman in place, the Elections Commission is paralysed. The other commissioners can’t meet —and if they did, they’d be split three-three between government and opposition nominees. So until Patterson’s replacement takes office, it’s no progress on the voter’s list or anything else.
In principle, appointing a new chairman could be quick. Jagdeo proposes six names. The president picks one. When Patterson’s predecessor stepped down in 2016, that process broke down. Jagdeo put up three lists of six. All were rejected. Then Granger made his own unaided choice.
The CCJ ruled last week that Granger was wrong to reject Jagdeo’s nominees without giving reasons. But if he could find reasons for rejection this time, what then?
The CCJ suggests preliminary discussions to come up with an acceptable list. That would be beautiful. Instead, I can imagine both sides playing games.
A Jagdeo supporter appointed as Commission chair would be likely to prioritise the three-month election deadline over the voters’ list. The three months is enshrined in the constitution, while the voters’ list requirements are not.
But an election without a new list would carry risks—which were hinted at in the CCJ on Monday.
Legal challenges to the election process, before polling day or after, could be tied up in the Guyanese courts for months.
Hot-headed supporters of the present government could reject the electoral process as illegitimate. That could mean trouble on the streets.
Obviously, the commission should have had a new list in place from the date the old one expired. But it didn’t.
Just how bad is the current voters’ list?
It includes 633,156 names. With the voting-age population around 455,000, that leaves around 178,000 potential voters either dead or migrated.
And those who have recently turned 18? Granger says they are not listed. Others state that anyone over 14 could have been placed on the old list, with the right to vote after their 18th birthday.
Jagdeo says the list could be cleaned up. But a 178,000-name clean-up would be no easy task. There are suspicions all round. A former health minister Leslie Ramsammy says that the current government is fiendishly planning a rigged and padded new voters’ list.
It’s a long, long way from Singapore.