By Ralph Ramkarran
There has been much, inevitable, speculation about the future of President Jagdeo. It started while his second term was coming to an end as supporters, including the late Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud, publicly expressed support for a third presidential term. It intensified when flyers and buttons were produced and widely circulated.
Speculation about a third presidential term has been renewed once more, no doubt because many supporters of the PPP believe that his candidacy will restore its absolute majority. Many supporters also feel that his resolute aggressiveness towards the Opposition and all critics is exactly what is needed at this time.
President Jagdeo is still very active in politics and governance. He also maintains a high international profile, serving on many bodies relating to climate change including of the Commonwealth. He recently addressed the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference.
The dilemma that will face the PPP when election time comes around is whether to field the same candidates who were unsuccessful in bringing home the majority. The first issue is to determine whether a third presidential term is possible under Guyana law?
The PPP long came to the view that a president should be limited to two consecutive terms. It gave evidence to that effect to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform in about 1995. In 1999 it gave evidence to the Constitutional Reform Commission (“CRC”) and again expressed its support for a limit to be placed on presidential terms to two and that they ought to be consecutive.
In reflecting the PPP’s proposal, which was also made by others, the Report of the CRC said: “Many submissions proposed that a President should be limited to two terms in office.”
In its Recommendations the CRC said: “A person shall hold the office of President for a maximum of two (2) terms and those terms shall be consecutive.”
After the Report of the CRC was delivered to the National Assembly in July, 1999, and unanimously approved on a motion tabled for that purpose, an Oversight Committee was established by the National Assembly to draft the legislation to reflect the Recommendations. By this time Mrs. Janet Jagan had resigned the Presidency and President Jagdeo had been appointed.
Even though the Report of the CRC was accepted in its entirety by the National Assembly, the Bill prepared by the Oversight Committee, which was eventually passed by the National Assembly, did not quite reflect the wording of the recommendation of the CRC.
The new constitutional provision states as follows: “A person elected as President after the year 2000 is eligible for re-election only once.” The Bill giving effect to this constitutional amendment was supported by the Opposition and passed unanimously.
This provision in the Constitution does not use the word “consecutively” and this has given rise to speculation that it allows a President to serve only one term or two consecutive terms and return after a lapse of one or more terms and seek election again.
This speculation turns on the meaning of the word “re-election” in the provision. Since a “re-election” can only come immediately after an “election,” therefore “re-election” means “re-election” to a second consecutive term. A “re-election” cannot come after a lapse of one or more terms because that would be an “election.”
Since a President can only be “re-elected” only once, it means that he can only serve two consecutive terms at one time. The provision does not preclude a President being “elected” again after a lapse of one or more terms as this would be an “election” and not a “re-election.”
There are many legal principles which guide courts in the interpretation of laws. One of these is called the “golden rule.” It simply means that words in laws must be interpreted in their natural and ordinary meaning wherever possible. Another rule of interpretation is that where necessary the law must be construed in its entirety in order to arrive at the true meaning of particular sections.
In its deliberations the CRC was concerned that a President who had served two consecutive terms would attempt to secure a third term through the back door, that is, by being appointed Prime Minister and orchestrate the resignation of the President and by succeeding him/her.
Alternatively a President may become gravely ill or die and be succeeded by a Prime Minister who was a former President thus circumventing the rule.
The Constitution gave recognition to this possibility by enacting the following provision in Act No. 17 of 2000: “Provided that a person who is not eligible to be elected as President shall not be eligible for appointment as Prime Minister.”
If “re-election” is interpreted as immediately after one or two consecutive terms and “election” is interpreted as not serving as President for at least one term, having served for one or two consecutive terms, then it is conceivable that the above provision relating to the qualification of the Prime Minister might not serve to prevent the situation which may have been contemplated. There are also other reasons why this might be so.
Whenever the current turmoil comes to an end, as it eventually must, and whatever situation emerges, Guyana will never be the same again.