By Chaitram Aklu
Harper Lee, through Atticus Finch the main character in the classic To Kill a Mocking Bird told readers: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view … Until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
The surprise “yes, yes, yes” vote on the no-confidence motion by Guyana’s Junior Member of Parliament Charrandass Persaud (Dec. 21, 2018) that resulted in toppling of the coalition A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) government of President David Granger is historic. Never in the history of government in the nation has a no confidence motion succeeded. The last time a no-confidence motion was tabled in the parliament was 2014 when the now opposition Peoples Progressive Party – Civic (PPP-C) was a minority government. Rather than allow the vote the president (Donald Ramoutar) prorogued parliament and held elections which the party lost and became the opposition in 2015.
The governing APNU+AFC party held a one seat majority in the 65 member parliament (33 to 32). Persaud, from the smaller AFC party did not make his intent known and it was only when the vote was called that he, to the astonishment of all, answered “yes” three times. As a result the no-confidence motion passed with 33 to 32 majority, as provided for in the Guyana Constitution. He had never voted against his majority governing party before and only a week before voted in support of the national budget. The spotlight shone immediately on the Junior MP who instantly began to receive threats and abuse from colleagues from his side of the isle. But lessons can be learned from the past. The American statesman Daniel Webster who had delivered controversial votes in the legislature once said, “Inconsistencies of opinion arising from changes of circumstances are often justifiable. But there is one sort of inconsistency that is culpable: it is the inconsistency between a man’s conviction and his vote, between his conscience and his conduct.” Webster voted with a clear conscience and also received abundant attacks but later became a respected statesman.
As a result of the vote national elections, constitutionally due by 2020, must now be held by March 2019. One thing is certain though. The outcome of the no confidence vote, regardless of how it was received, has shown that there is hope for democracy in Guyana which is now attracting international investors because of significant oil discoveries. It is important to remember that Party loyalty is not written in the constitution and a person’s conscience does not abide by majority rule.
It was a dangerous decision by one man in the context of Guyanese politics. On an a/v recording of the proceedings, a female voice is heard saying, “Charrandass you gon dead tonight” … “Charrandass you want dead tonight.” He was immediately offered police escort which he said he refused. Physical threats were made against him in the chambers. Immediately after the vote he spoke to the media. “I am not concerned right now who thinks I am a traitor as they’ve called me. They’ve threatened me that ‘you’re a traitor’; ‘you’re a sellout’; ‘you should die’. I heard that. I will die. …..When it comes, I will go.” He said. Sam Houston, another American legislator was also denounced as a traitor and endured many insults because of the way he voted. Still it did not sway his conscience. In his farewell speech he told his colleagues that he was retiring “with clean hands and a clean conscience.”
“I sold my conscience for three and a half years to the detriment of my own job. That has now come to an end” Persaud said, as he announced he was not returning to Parliament and would be resigning his seat.
A (meddling?) statement issued by the British High Commissioner to Guyana stated, “Members of Parliament must be allowed to undertake their constitutionally mandated roles in the absence of fear or favor,” urging respect of the government’s loss of the motion.
Not much is known about Persaud. When he spoke to the media he said that he was a successful lawyer before he entered parliament after the May 2015 election. He hails from the eastern part of the country (Berbice) where constituents have been hit hard when the government closed the sugar estates and laid off thousands. But as a junior MP (backbencher), he never spoke in parliament, never was able to table a motion, and never asked questions, according to an online post. But Persaud felt that his party, the AFC did not keep the promises that it made in its campaign. “I worked to put the APNU+AFC in office, I did nothing for the people in my Region while I was an MP, and the AFC almost totally ignored the people of Region 6, except to put many on the breadline, and so I had to fix that,” he told a press conference after the vote.
It was John Quincy Adams who, in a speech in 1807 said “Private interest must not be put in opposition to public good.” Persaud himself quoted British MP Jessica Levy to explain his decision, “There are times when you have to vote according to your conscience and not because of party affiliation.” So when Persaud made the bold decision to vote “yes” and literally toppling his own government, was he in words of Robert F. Kennedy, “demonstrating conviction, courage, a desire to help others who needed help, and true genuine love for his country?” Maybe.
Persaud mentioned a death threat by Volda Lawrence (a cancer survivor) MP and Health Minister in the larger coalition party, the PNC: “—whoever crosses the floor, she will kill the person, throw them over the rail –.” She was also widely reported as saying that she will only give jobs to people belonging to her party. He also told the press that his AFC party leader condoned the statement rather than condemning it. Lawrence later offered an apology for saying she would only give jobs to PNC members. A US Congressman from New York had made a similar death threat to a reporter and was convicted in court and lost his seat. He noted further that there were thousands of sugar workers who were laid off and their families were suffering.
So is Charrandass Persaud, the previously unknown junior MP who created history and political shock in toppling his own government when he voted with the opposition on a no-confidence vote a traitor, a man of courage or a man who just decided to upset the political applecart to satisfy himself? In his press interview after the vote he said, “This is the one time that I have a say and I said it in accordance with my conscience.” The passage of time will tell whether he is a traitor, a man with a conscience, a true statesman who displayed the most admirable human virtue – courage.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.