The parties now in Government – the Alliance For Change (AFC) and the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) – campaigned heavily on the plank of “constitutional change” and in fact was one of the items high on their Manifesto’s agenda. It declared unequivocally:
“The APNU/AFC recognises that the Constitution, in its current form, does not serve the best interest of Guyana or its people. Within three months of taking up office, the APNU/AFC will appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people. The new Constitution will put the necessary checks and balances in place to consolidate our ethos of liberal democracy. Freedom of speech, reduction of the power of the President and the Bill of Rights will be enshrined in the document.”
Many persons, who felt there were structural political issues that led to objected-to behaviour by the PPP in their twenty-three years in office, voted for the APNU/AFC because they believed such issues would be dealt with in the promised constitutional changes. However, rather than a “Commission to amend the Constitution” being launched, a “STEERING Committee on Constitutional Reform”, under the Chairmanship of Nigel Hughes, was in fact constituted after the elections. It appeared that the government was now going to proceed with the promised changed in a two-step manoeuvre.
The Steering Committee took recommendations from the people, and in April of this year, more than a year after the elections, finally delivered its final report to the Prime Minister, in charge of “governance”. They had requested (and received) an extension of their time frame so as to secure the “widest consultations possible”. Prominent recommendations included reduction of the powers of the President, further devolution of power from the centre and revamping the electoral system. Upon receipt of the Report, the PM promised that a broad based Constitutional Committee, which should include “the PPP and other stakeholders”, would consider the submitted recommendations, and the reforms they would initiate.
Two months later however, it appeared that (under the kindest possible interpretation), there was an evident volte face on this issue had been deemed so pressing. As was discussed in this space then, “President David Granger appeared to throw the entire process into a tailspin when he averred that he did not want a “boardroom constitutional reform”. This appears to be a direct refutation of the process whereby the Steering Committee produced its recommendations. This was made very clear when the President concluded: “I want people in their communities to meet and express their views. I don’t want a group of people sitting down on a room saying what must be done.”
Another two months have passed and it is clear that the worst fears are being realised since there has been no mention of a body constituted to conduct the new requirements of “countrywide consultations”. In the meantime, the government has continued launching initiatives that have caused a wide swath of their own supporters to fear a replication of the same “excesses” due to structural political ambiguities they found unacceptable in the PPP’s regime.
It is interesting that the Prime Minister, who is from the AFC wing of the coalition, has continued to insist that he believes expeditious constitutional change is absolutely necessary – especially as it relates to reduction of the powers of the Presidency. It is clear that there has been a divergence of position between the partners in the coalition on the issue of constitutional change. This is rather unfortunate. The first series of changes to the “Burnhamite” 1980 Constitution occurred in 2000 only after massive protests by the PNC as part of a menu of measures agreed to by the PPP. The PPP had already initiated the process of change based on their prior criticism of the PNC’s pre-1992 actions but political contradictions in the system overtook them by 1997.
Tragedy would be repeating itself as a farce if it would take protests to force constitutional change after all the promises.