Economic opportunity and political drama
In the months prior to the December 21 confidence vote in the National Assembly two issues, particularly, had taken centre stage on the national agenda. The first, which had surfaced much earlier, had to do with preparations for the advent of oil and gas as a likely economic game-changer for the country. Those discourses, at the levels of both officialdom and across the country, as a whole, had to do mostly with the extent to which Guyana was on the way to creating a domestic infrastructure, including an adequate legislative framework and an institutional arrangement to adequately manage an “oil and gas economy.”
The second issue arose out of the official disclosure that President David Granger had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer, and that arrangements had been made for him to undergo a protracted period of treatment in the Republic of Cuba that was to last several months.
In the period that followed, the two issues continued to engage public attention to the exclusion of virtually everything else, save perhaps, (though to a somewhat lesser extent) the unfolding political crisis in Venezuela and the consequential steady movement of refugees across the unprotected border, into Guyana.
The issue concerning the President’s condition and his treatment generated a somewhat greater level of public chatter that had mostly to do with the implications of the effects of his ongoing treatment on his ability to continue to perform the duties of his office adequately. The months of shuttling between here and Havana, on the one hand and continuing to serve as President, on the other, must surely have thrown up questions about his physical and intellectual stamina. The nation, eventually, came to regard the public announcements of his comings and goings as a matter of regrettable necessity.
The issue of an emerging oil and gas economy, not least, speculation regarding the process of official preparation for managing the sector, creating an enabling environment in which the country could optimise its Local Content returns, providing training opportunities that would open the way for local job-creation and building a Sovereign Wealth Fund infrastructure that would properly protect the anticipated huge returns from the oil and gas sector from waste and mismanagement, all became talking points and areas of vigorous political discourse. It was a period during which the oil and gas-related issues became a matter of high-profile public and political discourse and during which the local Business Support Organisations bestirred themselves with an uncharacteristic assertiveness. That, to some extent, still persists.
Friday December 21 and the outcomes of the PPP’s confidence motion in the National Assembly immediately shoved the rest of the national agenda to one side. The administration, manifestly, appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. What would have been regarded in some quarters as an unexpected and significant political opening for the opposition PPP to make a meaningful political play suddenly materialised, the constitutional directive of fresh elections within three months of the vote in the National Assembly looming large in that party’s boisterous response to the vote in the Parliament.
Government’s response was to move to pull out such legitimate legal mechanisms as it had at its disposal to set aside the December 21 National Assembly vote. Two attempts, the first inside the National Assembly itself and afterwards in the High Court, failed to have the outcome of the vote overturned. Afterwards, the ruling of the Court of Appeal eventually sent the matter to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The intervening period served to present the coalition administration with the biggest political headache of its tenure. In the weeks and months that followed the decision on the confidence motion, PPP Leader Bharrat Jagdeo not only moved to raise his own political profile but to steer the political narrative in the direction of early elections, that issue taking centre stage in both of his two meetings this year with President Granger. What Jagdeo did as well was to seek to steer national attention in the direction of an early poll by staging a high-profile contest for the PPP’s presidential candidature, the eventual pick being his own favoured candidate, former PPP Housing Minister Irfan Ali, around whom a small squall has since been swirling in the matter of his academic qualifications, a matter which, ironically, has no bearing on his eligibility to run for the presidency.
That, however, was far from the whole story, as far as the country’s most contentious political season in many years was concerned. The January 31 ruling by Chief Justice Roxanne George that the Guyana Constitution makes no provision for dual citizenship was to force the removal of three Cabinet Ministers: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Greenidge; Minister of State, Joseph Harmon and Minister of Business, Dominic Gaskin, from both their seats in the National Assembly and from their ministerial portfolios. The Chief Justice’s decision has created parliamentary casualties for the PPP, the most notable of these being long-time Party stalwart Gail Teixeira, who has held the key Home Affairs and Health portfolios during the PPP’s stint in office.
It has been, on the whole, a contentious political season without the rancor ever boiling over into the kind of confrontation that always seems to loom large in times of political face-offs. The PPP, seizing the opening created by the confidence vote, sought to ‘talk’ up a political crisis arising from the events in the National Assembly. President Granger moved to talk a crisis down. As has become customary whenever the issue of national elections surfaces, the question of the ‘readiness’ of the Guyana Elections Commission to manage the elections process has arisen. Back in October last year, the appointment by the President of retired Judge, James Patterson, as Chairman of the Elections Commission had triggered a vigorous political response from the PPP, including a high-profile legal challenge to the President’s pick. The historic controversy over the conduct and outcomes of national elections will doubtless make the Elections Commission the most scrutinized public institution in Guyana.
Since the events of December 21 Guyana has embarked on an unexpected political ‘excursion’ that appears to have galvanised both the coalition administration and the opposition PPP into their separate agendas, both of which have to do with who governs, at least in the short to medium term. The answer to that question may not be long in coming.