Constitutional development and change

he APNU/AFC coalition promised “constitutional change” in their Manifesto for the last elections: “The APNU/AFC Coalition will immediately appoint a Constitutional Reform Commission consisting of representatives of all major Stakeholders – trades unions, the private sector, religious and faith-based organisations, women, youths, professional organisations and the University. Its mandate will be to undertake the urgent task of fashioning comprehensive reforms, for early implementation, designed to guarantee a democratic society free from the abuse of citizens by those in high office fuelled by the exercise of arbitrary powers and behaviour by the Executive which is inconsistent with the spirit and provisions of the Constitution.”

Not exactly “immediately”, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who was given responsibility for this pressing matter, launched not a “Constitutional Reform Commission” (CRC) but rather a “Constitutional Reform Steering Committee (CRSC)” three months after taking office. The CRSC was mandated to “draft a work programme and make recommendations for constitutional reforms”. Headed by AFC’s Chairman Nigel Hughes, the CRSC submitted its final recommendations to PM Nagamootoo at the end of April 2016. The PM promised to submit the recommendations to Cabinet after which the actual CRC is to be constituted. This would hopefully include all the stakeholders, especially the Opposition, and a new Constitution will be crafted and eventually submitted to a referendum by the Guyanese people.

While Constitutions are not to be changed capriciously, change they must; to address the new challenges and conditions facing the society by appropriately empowering the institutions of the State to confront with those changes. At independence, we were granted a Constitution by the British but it was taken with a grain of salt by the early leaders. They were aware that historically, Constitutions had been changed (1928, 1953) and then even suspended (1953) to ensure the continuation of the paramountcy of imperial interests.

By their very nature, a document that seeks to authoritatively allocate power in State organs and to delineate the rights of citizens in whom sovereignty ultimately resides must be imbued with an overarching world view (if not ideology) so that there is coherence in the various articles. In 1980, for instance, when the then PNC Government completely replaced the “independence” Constitution the new document stated clearly: “Guyana is a secular, democratic sovereign state in the course of transition from capitalism to socialism.”

A socialist state is based on a completely different set of premises than the “capitalist” one that Guyana supposedly inherited at independence. Thus when there were complaints that the powers of the new Executive President were “too extensive”, there were legitimate questions asked as to what was the conception of “power” deployed in the criticism. In a “socialist democracy”, for instance, many of the rights that were taken as the sine qua non of Western democracy were dismissed by socialists, such as Fidel Castro in our hemisphere as “bourgeoise rights”. Economic and social rights such as equal pay, medical benefits and education were considered more important.

The extensive constitutional changes enacted in 2000 were unfortunately not woven together by a comparable ideological framework, but merely accommodated concerns of the Opposition. It is not surprising, therefore, that contradictions have been identified and further changes now demanded. The danger, however, is that just as in the changes of 2000, which followed extensive hearings and submissions from a wide cross-section of the Guyanese public, the changes that may issue from the ongoing initiative will also be ad hoc and riddled with contradictions.

The political parties have done the nation a disservice in not presenting very clearly their conception of how the power of the State ought to be configured. To simply say the powers of the President must be “reduced” and “checked” is not enough. We should, for instance, take a step behind the powers of the President and ask whether the mechanism to form the Government itself is appropriate to the nature of our plural society.