Coalition Government Promised Constitutional Reform by July 2016

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Bharrat Jagdeo and Raphael Trotman

A Proposal Tabled in Parliament One Year Later Languishes

COMMENTARY
By Dr. Tara Singh

The number one priority that was set out by the PNC-led coalition in their joint party 2015 election manifesto was the pressing need for constitutional reform. The manifesto points to the “introduction of a meaningful Constitutional Reform Program (CRP) geared towards improved governance and fair representation.”

Under the manifesto’s caption, “Program of Action,” it is stated that within the first 100 days of the formation of a government of National Unity, the following will be done: “establishment of a Constitutional Reform Committee with a mandate to complete consultations, draft amendments and present same to the National Assembly for approval within 9 months.” This means that within the first 12-month period (July 2015-July 2016) of the PNC-led administration, constitutional reform would have been implemented.

Two years later (2017), the coalition government presented a draft proposal in the National Assembly to trigger the constitutional reform process and for establishing a 15-member “constitutional reform consultative commission.” The draft proposal was referred to the parliamentary standing committee on constitutional reform (Article 119A of the Constitution) for “consideration and report.” Since then, one and ¼ year has elapsed and there has been no further movement on the government’s proposal. It seems that the Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform (SCCR) whose role is to continually “review the effectiveness of the working of the Constitution and making periodic reports thereon to the National Assembly, with proposal for reform as necessary,” has not been activated for this purpose. Thus, the coalition government’s draft proposal on constitutional reform is languishing in Parliament.

The Alliance for Change (AFC) political party which is the main minority partner in the coalition government was very forceful in making a case for constitutional reform while in the opposition and at their 2015 pre-election campaign. They focused heavily on the enormous power of the Presidency. They wanted to divest some of the Presidential power and shift it onto lower levels of the governance structure.

The junior partner in the coalition, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), has always made the point that under the existing system, power and decision-making are too highly concentrated in the Presidency and in the Cabinet.

Recognizing these constitutional anomalies, the AFC had therefore utilized constitutional reform as a powerful election tool since they have been aware that such a message would appeal to middle class voters, disenchanted PPP voters, the youth voters, and other interest groups’ voters. That message did resonate with those groups of voters, and the AFC was able to deliver the promised 11-12% vote to the APNU-AFC coalition. However once in power, the AFC has allowed constitutional reform to lose its traction, despite calls from various sections of society to fast track it. RISE (Reform, Inform, Sustain Educate (RISE) was established, for example, to “demand the implementation of the constitutional reform process.” RISE also said that it intends to carry out its own consultations countrywide.

The sloth on constitutional reform, dramatizes the difficulties of working in a coalition arrangement. In Cabinet the AFC members are required to adhere to the doctrine of “collective responsibility.” Thus, if the PNC does not want to push forth constitutional reform, the AFC will be left paralyzed in this respect. But inaction on this, their signature political issue, will hurt them (AFC) badly at the polls. Their election campaign slogan of constitutional reform had provided them with much political capital in the past two elections (2011 and 2015). Without constitutional reform as their top priority, therefore, their prospects at the polls in the Local Government Elections (LGE) will not be bright. At the 2020 general elections it could turn out to be worse. Corruption and accountability cannot be two of their top priorities anymore. They, like the PNC, have been inundated with allegations and reports of corruption. The recent Auditor General report for 2017 and the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the operations of the Mayor and Town Council are further manifestations of corruption and the lack of accountability by the coalition government.

It is for these and other reasons that former Speaker of the Guyana Parliament, Ralph Ramkarran, has recently thrown a challenge to the Alliance for Change (AFC) Party to break away from the APNC-AFC coalition and begin the process of constitutional reform, if they want to be relevant to the political situation in Guyana. Ralph even suggested that the AFC sit as independent members of Parliament. At a theoretical and academic level Ralph’s suggestion seems interesting.

Constitutional reform would likely resonate well with the middle class, youth and other interest groups like the Private Sector Commission and even with certain political parties like the Working Alliance Party (WPA), but its appeal among traditional PPP and PNC supporters would not be as strong. This resistance to constitutional change has to be diluted.

Would the AFC follow Ralph’s advice? No. The AFC would not be tempted; they are part of a government and are not sure whether they would have that opportunity to govern again. They love the exercise of power, not to mention the status, influence and monetary rewards. While Ralph has indicated that they (AFC) have a better chance of being politically relevant if they break away from the APNU coalition and push for constitutional reform, it seems that they would continue to embrace the coalition irrespective of the level of anxiety and internal strife among themselves. Their common hatred for the PPP is another binding force for them!

Had the AFC been able to break away from the coalition and advance constitutional reform they could have claimed a major political victory, especially considering the emerging oil and gas sector which will dramatically alter the nature of social and economic relations. The existing constitution is filled with verbiage, ambiguity and some useless concepts. It is because of this level of ambiguity, for example, that President David Granger had been able to apply his perception and interpretation to the constitution and appointed “a fit and proper” person as the GECOM Chair.

Not only these structural defects but also the philosophy of the constitution has to be changed. What would be Guyana’s development philosophy considering the emerging oil and gas sector? How can the constitution be changed to ensure that the oil wealth benefits all Guyanese? When the 1980 constitution was conceived and eventually developed, the underlying philosophy of the PNC was evident. They consciously created an instrument to allow for dictatorship, for centralized power, for party paramountcy, for electoral rigging, and for the development of cooperatives (to weaken the private sector) that would eventually become the dominant sector in the economy.

The case for constitutional reform has never been stronger than now. Ralph Ramkarran is correct. This poses an ideal opportunity for the AFC to advance constitutional reform with or without the active support of the PNC. While the PPP had initiated some reforms in the early 2000s in response to the requirements of the Herdsmanston Accord and recognizing that those have not been enough, the PPP should not be averse to constitutional reform.

Constitutional reform has become a major social stream that no significant political party can afford to ignore for much longer. When one takes into consideration that most of what the 2000s reforms were designed to achieve did not materialize, the need for more enduring reforms intensifies. It will be recalled that violence and political unrest continued to haunt the country. The PPP administration had to enter into a joint Jagdeo-Corbin communiqué on a “constructive engagement” process in May 2003 to secure the peace and the easing of political tension. Again, on March 12, 2008, President Bharrat Jagdeo and 40 social partners, including the PNC, agreed to the “Bourda Accord” that was precipitated by the unspeakable mass murders at Lusignan and Bartica when 23 persons were slaughtered.

If the AFC refuses to act on constitutional reform, with or without the active support of PNC, their credibility would be in jeopardy especially given that they, as part of the PNC-led coalition, had collectively agreed to make constitutional reform their signature governance project. What is also necessary is for a new vision, a new philosophy, and a new thinking to be injected into the constitution or for the creation of a new constitution that embodies these ideas.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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