The Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has ruled that an amendment which barred presidents of the Republic of Guyana from serving more than two terms in office, was a valid change to the constitution.

In the ruling handed down on Tuesday, the court said that after examining the  historical background of the amendment to the constitution of Guyana, it was noted that it was passed unanimously by the National Assembly during the administration of president Bharrat Jagdeo.

“The CCJ felt that it was clear that the amendment did not emerge from the desire of any political party to manipulate the requirements to run for the office of president. The constitution was amended after extensive national consultation and therefore represented a sincere attempt to enhance democracy in Guyana,” the regional court said. 

The challenge to Act No 17 of 2001 amended Chapter 90 of the constitution to set presidential term limits and qualification for presidential candidates was made by a private citizen, Cedric Richardson, who challenged the amendment on the basis that he should have the right to choose whomsoever he wanted to be president.  

Bharrat Jagdeo

He also took issue with the fact that the amendment disqualified Jagdeo, who had previously served two terms as president, from running for office in upcoming elections. Richardson argued that the amendment was inconsistent with his rights under Articles 1 and 9 of the constitution which declared that Guyana was a “sovereign democratic state”. 

He said that in order for the national assembly to amend the constitution, the amendment had to be supported by a majority vote in a referendum. He argued that no referendum was held before the amendment in 2000 and therefore it was unconstitutional. 

The High Court, and a majority of the Court of Appeal, agreed with  Richardson. 

They said that an essential feature of a sovereign democratic state was the freedom enjoyed by its people to choose whom they wish to represent them. 

The  court said the amendment was therefore unconstitutional because it “diluted the opportunity of the people to elect a president of their choice”. 

However, the attorney general had appealed to the CCJ challenging the majority ruling in the Court of Appeal. 

The challenge to the term limit came in the run up to the historic 2015 general elections, when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) lost to the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition after 23 years in office of which Bharrat Jagdeo served two terms as president.

The challenge sought to allow Jagdeo to contest elections again.

The main issue in the appeal was whether the additional qualifications set out in the amendment diluted the rights of the electorate or undermined the sovereign democratic nature of the state of Guyana as prescribed by Articles 1 and 9.  

All seven judges of the CCJ heard the appeal. 

The CCJ also stated that new qualifications could be introduced by valid constitutional amendments and that the National Assembly had the power to amend the Constitution by a vote of at least two-thirds of all members of the Assembly, without holding a referendum. 

The court also outlined guiding principles for assessing when new amendments to the constitution did not require the holding of a referendum.

CMC