Realistic constitutional change


The launch of the “Reform, Inform, Sustain, Educate” (RISE) movement – a group of citizens ostensibly drawn from outside the two major political parties, the PPP and PNC, to press for “constitutional change” – has once again brought to the fore the vexed question of moving our politics out of the zero sum parameters in which it has been stuck for more than half a century.

 The PPP Government had initiated the process of constitutional change as early as 1995, when a Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) was formed and hearings were held across the country as well as in a Parliamentary Select Committee.

The process was interrupted by the 1997 elections, which the PPP won, according to all foreign and domestic observers. The PNC, however, claimed the poll was flawed, and launched massive street protests that segued into ethnically-directed riots and violence. The Caricom-brokered Herdmanston Accord of January 17, 1998 included an agreement to complete the reform of the 1980 Constitution.

A new 20-person CRC acceptable to all parliamentary parties was assembled. It included individuals drawn from the widest possible cross-section of society. For six months, the CRC conducted hearings and took submissions from every Guyanese individual or organisation that expressed a wish to do so. Their more-than-4000 submissions were reviewed by a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee, which then winnowed out and furthered 182 recommendations (drawn from 32 subject areas) to the Oversight Committee of the National Assembly. The final changes were approved unanimously, in 2000, by all the parties in the National Assembly, including the PNC. This question must be raised: why, after 182 alterations were made to the 1980 Constitution, are there now new demands for changes?

The most criticised feature of the 1980 Constitution had been the powers allocated to the Presidency: The President was a de facto dictator who, for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, had complete veto power over legislation. He could be president for life, and could hire and fire at will most public officials (Art 232), and determine the length of tenure of others whom he might not have even appointed. In the new Constitution, the powers of the President were diminished considerably, while those of the Opposition Leader and the Parliament were increased.

The President’s power to fire was restricted only to those individuals not appointed by the Service Commissions, but the incumbent has now challenged this rule. On those offices he created, if their salaries are charged to the Consolidated Fund, the appointments must be reviewed by the National Assembly, but this requirement has lapsed.

In critical constitutional appointments, such as the Commissioner of Police, the Chancellor of the Judiciary and the Chief Justice, the Opposition Leader’s agreement is necessary for confirmation. It is for this reason that some constitutional offices have been occupied by individuals in an “acting” capacity when there is no agreement. But experience has shown that all of these changes are still tested by Executive overreach when the consultation has reverted to being perfunctory.

The Elections Commission had been the vehicle for rigging elections in the past, but the President had to now appoint its Chairman from a list submitted by the Opposition Leader. But this is now being challenged by the President, who has insisted on arbitrarily defining the constitutional stipulations.  It is clear that the powers of the Presidency have to be further curbed as a threshold issue; even the APNU/AFC Manifesto demanded this.

There is no need to initiate wider changes at this time, since many of the other claimed “shortcomings” of the Constitution are actually the result of Executive overreach.

RISE should not get caught up in trying to create a utopia via “constitutional change”, but merely put pressure on the Government to implement what it has already committed to in its manifesto and reiterated in the strongest possible language by the Prime Minister in the post-election period: reduce the powers of the Presidency in the areas the office holder has been abusing them.