Has preoccupation with Exxon Oil Contract unwittingly squeezed out constitutional reform from centerstage?

Dear Editor,
The innumerable letters and commentaries on the Exxon & Partners’ oil contract have unwittingly thrown constitutional reform (CORE) to the periphery of the political landscape, despite Guyanese becoming amenable to reform since 2001. Prior to this, Guyana’s experience with constitutional reform has been one of distrust, as it was manipulated to (i) remove a political party (PPPC) from the Government (in 1953 and 1964); (ii) catapult another political party (PNC) into Government (in 1964), and allow it (PNC) to consolidate state power (1980); and abolish all referenda (1978).
The constitutional reform process resulted in the enactment of 200+ amendments in 2001, in accordance with the CARICOM-brokered Herdmanston Accord, and has neutralised distrust for CORE. However, this change in attitude has not given rise to any significant momentum for constitutional reform within the last 8 years; rather, the position of CORE on the political radar has been overtaken by the relentless pounding of the Exxon Oil Contract by analysts, writers, and commentators.
Notwithstanding, this departure does not necessarily signal a lack of interest in constitutional change; rather, it forces a reordering of priorities, and shows how the public’s perception could shift, depending on their interpretation of social reality.
Civil society groups, politicians and individuals believe that constitutional reform in certain areas could lead to good governance, improved national development, less societal tension, and fair distribution of national resources. This is how one non-partisan group, RISE, describes the need for constitutional reform: “If implemented, it would lead to executive accountability, racial harmony, and political, economic and social inclusivity.”
Here are multiple and diverse views on constitutional reform that have been generated from focused interviews with a sample of Guyanese. These views do not necessarily reflect those of the wider Guyanese population. It is expected that intensive community engagements would determine which, or any of these would subsequently translate into constitutional amendments.
(1) How would constitutional reform improve the level of governance and expand inclusivity? (2) Would any consideration be given to power-sharing? (3) What type of civil sanction should be imposed for breaches of the constitution, and should there be established a Constitutional Tribunal to oversee constitutional compliance? (4) Should the people have the right to recall parliamentary representatives despite the list method of voting? (5) Would the people’s right to exercise their political choice at a referendum be preserved? (6) Would constitutional change aid in the promotion of One Guyana and fairness in the allocation of resources? (7) Would there be any consideration for the restoration of a bicameral legislature that is a common feature in Caricom countries? (8) Would election to the second chamber (senate) be on a first-past-the-post system?
Here are other issues: (9) Given the disparity in judicial sentencing, would any consideration be given to the establishment of sentencing guidelines for the courts? (10) Aren’t the existing libel laws stifling freedom of expression and the freedom of the press?
(11)Why should the Chancellor of the Judiciary and the Chief Justice sit as official members of the Judicial Service Commission where they decide who would become one of their colleagues (Judge)? Isn’t this a conflict of interest; why can’t their expertise be tapped as ex-officio members? (12) To avoid future controversy, shouldn’t consideration be given for the setting of an upper limit on how many political appointees an incoming Government can hire? (13) With the rapid influx of migrants into Guyana, shouldn’t the existing citizenship qualifications be reviewed? (13) With respect to general elections, would the appointment formula for the GECOM Chair be revisited, as well as the status of Guyanese voters who are resident overseas?
An implied expectation of constitutional amendments like those of 2001 was that these would have made it easier for Opposition political parties and others to become involved in the decision-making process of the state. A central issue, inclusivity, did not bring them closer to the result they had intended. At the political level, the main Opposition party PNCR lost the 2001 general and regional elections as well as the 2006 elections, and in their frustration, they began to clamour for further constitutional changes to allow for such provisions as shared governance (or power sharing).
Despite political parties’ rhetorical flourishes on constitutional reform, the drive in this regard has continued to subside since 2015. Besides a report generated by the coalition’s Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission (CRCC) after two years in office, no other important constitutionally related event occurred during 2015-2020. And after 2 years in office, the PPPC Government passed legislation with the expectation of moving forward with the constitutional process with the establishment of a 20-member Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC). However, this move has not ignited any momentum for constitutional reform, and the Attorney General (AG) blames APNU+AFC for non-cooperation. Mr. Anil Nandlall concedes that if the Parliamentary Opposition does not get on board, the Government cannot proceed with constitutional reform.
Several challenges have emerged now for political parties such as: “Would constitutional reform necessarily play to their advantage?” and “Would constitutional reform entail a recalibration of their political strategy?” Finally, would LGE 2023 (Local Government Election) scheduled for June 11th, be the catalyst for constitutional reform?

Dr Tara Singh