Responding to the latest confirmation by the parliamentary opposition party the Alliance for Change (AFC) that it was proceeding with the vote of no confidence against his Government, President Donald Ramotar threatened to prorogue or dissolve the National Assembly. This threat has led to some discussion and even speculation on the Constitution of Guyana, the powers of the National Assembly and the role of the Standing Orders of the Assembly.
This e-column seeks to explore the options of dissolution, prorogation or a no-confidence resolution with the understanding that a fourth option – no action in regard to any of the other three – is now not available. This fourth option has to be ruled in the face of the repeated insistence by the AFC that it would not back down, the restatements by the APNU to unqualified support for the AFC’s motion and the various responses by the Ramotar Administration PPP/C.
Before embarking of an examination of the options it is useful to understand them in the context of the life of the Parliament since each of the options takes place within the context of the life of the Parliament, made up of the National Assembly and the President.
The life of Parliament is five years counting from the date when the National Assembly first meets after any previous dissolution and then automatically stands dissolved. Let us take a practical example: Suppose the National Assembly was dissolved in September 2011, elections are held in November 2011, and the new Assembly meets on January 7, 2012. The National Assembly will stand dissolved on January 6, 2017 unless dissolved by the President on an earlier date.
Let us now turn to the options of prorogation, dissolution or a resolution of no confidence and see what the Constitution provides.
Prorogation and dissolution
“70. (1) The President may at any time by proclamation prorogue Parliament.
“(2) The President may at any time by proclamation dissolve Parliament.”
“The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by the vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence: Article 107 (6). Once there has been such a vote, the Government remains in office but must hold fresh elections within three months.”
Prorogation versus dissolution
Perhaps the first matter to address is the difference between prorogation and dissolution. A prorogation brings the sittings of the House to a temporary conclusion although in practice there usually is no formal prorogation of the Assembly. In fact the closest there is to a prorogation in our parliamentary practice is the two month recess provided for under Standing Order 9 of the National Assembly. And since there is no prorogation then the argument by former Speakers Messrs Sase Narain and Ralph Ramkarran that the National Assembly should have resumed meeting immediately following the recess which ended on October 10, 2014 has considerable merit.
Prorogation brings the sittings of the House to an end and neither the House nor any of its committees may meet following prorogation until Parliament is again specifically summoned to meet. Note however that Parliament is not brought to an end by prorogation and in that regard prorogation differs from dissolution which not only brings the sittings of the House to an end but also brings Parliament to an end and precipitates a general election.
If the President does prorogue the National Assembly it seems that the Executive can function for as a long as six months without any further session or sitting of the Assembly. If my reading of Article 69 of the Constitution is correct, it seems too that the President can re-convene the National Assembly at any time no later than such six months and then immediately prorogue the Assembly again.
For some unknown reason prorogations have not been a feature of parliamentary life although it would seem to bring some formality to the work of the Assembly and offer certainty about its operation.
The President must no doubt accept that the no confidence motion will succeed and would discount the banal interpretation by Mr. Mansoor Nadir of the voting provision in the Constitution regarding a no confidence motion. The Constitution requires a simple majority of all the elected members which Mr. Nadir interpreted as requiring every member to vote. It is hard to believe that a seasoned Member of Parliament is bold enough to utter such nonsense but good to see that he has not repeated his “interpretation”.
Article 61 provides that where there is a dissolution of the National Assembly elections of members thereto must be held within three months after the dissolution by the President and that the next session of the National Assembly has to be held no more than one month later.
So the President’s Administration would buy considerable time if he chooses the prorogation route but may face a heavy political price if he does. It would surely be an as egregious misuse as there has ever been of what is sometimes referred to as the Burnham Constitution but the irony would surely be disregarded by the PNC – and the public – as a demonstration of utter contempt for the people who elect their parliamentary representatives.
If the President instead chooses the dissolution route in terms of time he gains no time advantage over the three months period for elections which a successful no confidence vote against the Administration would require. The advantage for the Administration however is the avoidance of a bruising debate on its at best mixed performance over its near three year life. It can expect to be faced with a litany of charges ranging from corruption to mismanagement, failure to hold local government elections, the unprecedented influence of the Chinese over the country, the absence of a Procurement Commission, a Human Rights Commission and misconduct by members of the Administration, including most recently by the Attorney General.
In either case, the President would be conscious that there is no campaign financing legislation which works to his Administration’s advantage and to the considerable disadvantage of the opposition. It will remain to me a mystery why the parliamentary opposition has either resisted or ignored calls by some members of civil society to control the open manner in which certain businesses finance the campaign of the PPP/C.
We can expect all speculation to come to an end shortly after the National Assembly is convened on Monday and someone from the AFC moves a motion to suspend the Standing Orders to advance the no confidence to the main business.