Guyana no confidence vote expected to lead to April general election

Guyana’s Government and opposition have met to agree preparations for an early general election following the passing of a no-confidence motion in the country’s National Assembly on 21 December and a period of political uncertainty.

Meeting on 10 January, the President, David Granger, and the Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, agreed that pending any court decisions on the no-confidence vote, Government would continue to function, and preparations would be made for an early general election. As a consequence, it is now widely expected that if there is no legal impediment, a general election will take place in April.

The meeting came after it was clear that the country faced a potential constitutional crisis following the one-vote defeat of the Government in a no-confidence vote in the country’s Parliament. The surprise outcome came when, without warning, one member of the ruling A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition, Charrandass Persaud, voted with the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP).

Persaud, a lawyer, subsequently fled to Canada, saying that he feared for his life, as widely reported allegations by parliamentarians continue to swirl alleging that his vote was bought, a matter now subject to a police investigation.

Subject to legal rulings, the vote has the effect of setting in train a general election campaign two years before it is due under the country’s constitution. It comes as Guyana is on the cusp of the recovery of huge reserves of offshore oil that promises to transform the economy, as Venezuela which claims much of Guyana appears to be ratcheting up cross border tension, and at a time when President Granger is having to travel regularly to Cuba to undergo medical treatment for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Following the one-vote 33-32 defeat on an opposition motion, President Granger appeared to accept the outcome and a Cabinet sub-committee has begun to explore how a caretaker government might operate until elections were held.

However, a legal memorandum presented to Cabinet by the Attorney General, Basil Williams, argued that the Speaker should be invited to reverse his ruling on the outcome of the confidence vote on the basis that the Parliamentarian who voted with the opposition was ineligible to sit in the National Assembly as he held dual Canadian citizenship. The Speaker, Dr Barton Scotland, however, declined to do so.

Subsequently, the Attorney General and others took the issue to the country’s high court seeking to have Persaud disqualified as a member of the National Assembly and declared a citizen of Canada making the no-confidence motion ‘of no legal effect’.  At the time, the Attorney General told the Guyanese media that he would, if unsuccessful in the country’s high court, be prepared to appeal to Guyana’s Court of Appeal and then to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) the country’s final court of appeal.

In a statement at the time the opposition PPP urged all interested parties join the proceedings and the judiciary not to hear the matter on a day-to-day basis.

Commenting in the Jamaica Observer on events, Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, observed that a protracted period of uncertainty ‘is something that Guyana can ill afford at this time’. Highlighting the unprecedented development and prosperity Guyana’s growing oil sector offered, he wrote, “political stability is a critical factor to ensure investor confidence not only in oil extraction but also in the wide range of downstream industries and enterprises that it would make possible”.

Venezuela ratchets up tensions

One day after the no-confidence vote, in a separate and possibly related development, the Venezuelan navy interdicted a Bahamian registered vessel undertaking nearshore seismic surveys in Guyanese waters for ExxonMobil. During the incident, the Venezuelan Navy attempted to land a helicopter on one of the ships, the Ramform Tethys, apparently to try to seize the vessel which it alleged was in waters that it claims are a part of its territory.

Speaking about the 22 December incursion, Guyana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge, told the country’s National Assembly that Guyana will not be threatened by such actions.

“Guyana has informed Venezuela that it will not be intimidated by the heightened hostility by that country as we continue to pursue our economic development agenda…we have reminded Venezuela that the Stabroek Block is an area over which Guyana maintains sovereign rights, located in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Guyana. Companies with concessions licenced by the Government of Guyana in this area will continue to implement their scheduled programmes of activity,” he said.

Providing more detail, Greenidge said that Guyana had sent a protest note to the Government of Venezuela, informed the governments of the 70-member crew of the vessel, and requested that the matter be placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council.

Caracas subsequently issued a Communique asserting that the incident took place ‘within the Orinoco River Delta maritime waters over which Venezuela has unquestionable sovereignty’ effectively renaming an area using the coordinates within Guyana’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where the incident occurred.

In a statement, a US State Department spokesman said: “The Venezuelan Navy aggressively stopped ExxonMob‎il contracted vessels operating under an oil exploration agreement with the Cooperative Republic of Guyana in its Exclusive Economic Zone,” and urged Venezuela to respect international law and its neighbours’ rights.

Meanwhile ExxonMobil has said that it has paused operations in the immediate area until further notice but will soon deploy a seismic vessel to its prospect in other offshore areas it is exploring.

This is a lead article from Caribbean Insight, The Caribbean Council’s flagship fortnightly publication. From The Bahamas to French Guiana, each edition consists of country-by-country analysis of the leading news stories of consequence, distilling business and political developments across the Caribbean into a single must-read publication. Please follow the links on the right-hand side of this page to subscribe, or access a free trial.