Constitutional Reform is Languishing: PNC-Led Coalition’s Lofty Rhetoric does not Match Action

Constitutional Reform is Languishing: PNC-Led Coalition’s Lofty Rhetoric does not Match Action

Photo : President David Granger

Dr Tara Singh

A recurring mantra of the PNC-led coalition while they occupied the opposition seats in Parliament has been the urgency with which they were pressing for constitutional reform. So intense was their drive for constitutional reform that they made it the centerpiece of their election campaign manifesto. It was placed at the top of their manifesto priority list, and they vowed to have it (constitutional reform) ready within one year of their accession to power (by May 2016).  

Their manifesto indicates that they plan to introduce “a meaningful constitutional reform program geared towards improved governance and fair representation.” And their action plan states,  “within the first 100 days of 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.”

Not too many people would disagree with the coalition’s promise on the urgency for constitutional reform. Apart from the wide Presidential powers, including immunity, many portions of the constitution are ambiguous and therefore tend to facilitate different interpretations or even different perceptions. Article 1 states, for example: “Guyana is an indivisible, secular, democratic sovereign state in the course of transition from capitalism to socialism and shall be known as the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.” Why not remove the totally useless phrase “transition from capitalism to socialism?” What about the word “cooperative?” This is no longer the major instrument to transform the economy. These and other articles should be modified or be deleted from the constitution.

Again, according to Article 34,  “It is the duty of the State to enhance the cohesiveness of the society by eliminating discriminatory distinctions between classes, between town and country, and between mental and physical labor.” Why was race or ethnicity not included in this article?  For the constitution to say  “Every person in Guyana is entitled to the basic right to a happy, creative and productive life, free from hunger, disease, ignorance and want…..[Article 40 (1)], that’s a farce. How could any reasonable person link this statement to the current crisis of the sugar belt? It has no relevance. Articles within the constitution must be meaningful and readily applicable to existing situations. These must not only protect rights but must also redress wrongs and alleviate distress. The constitution must also be a plan of action and not just a political exhortation.

“We cannot make old laws the foundation for a new social order any more than the old laws forged the old system into existence. Laws, including the constitution, must reflect and be based upon the existing conditions of society.” Laws cannot be at variance with social conditions. Or else, conflict and disharmony will arise. I believe that the majority of Guyanese will support constitutional reform. But I also believe that the PNC-led coalition will push this issue aside and may only bring it up during the last year of their rule. Why? They are not keen on constitutional reform. Other things are uppermost on their minds.  

Photo : Former President Bharrat Jagdeo    

Well, almost 3 years would have elapsed since the coalition took over the government, and there has been no demonstrable movement on constitutional reform. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo tabled a Constitutional Reform Bill in Parliament but that was more about process and logistics, rather than about actual movement in terms of field, research work, and public hearings. Tabling the Bill was an act of political appeasement rather than a genuine attempt to achieve constitutional reform.   

That Nagamootoo Bill is languishing in Parliament and it appears that the coalition's manifesto central focus on constitutional reform was just a vote catcher. While in opposition, the coalition team bombarded the PPP government with a barrage of attacks for acting dictatorial and seeking shelter under the constitution. They have been quick to associate the behavior of the Presidency to the wide powers vested in him by the 1980 constitution. It seems that the government is more interested in consolidating themselves in power (e.g., they have committed numerous extra-constitutional measures), enhancing their financial standing, and subtly trying to destroy the sugar belt.

Critics have also accused the PPP administration of not wanting to advance constitutional reform. They say, for example, that although the PPP had criticized the 1980 constitution when they were in the opposition, they also refused to introduce any major constitutional changes while they were the government, except those (e.g., Act 17 of 2001) forced upon them by the Herdmanston Accord. 

Apart from the apparent unrestrained power of the Presidency, Ramjattan and clique were utterly against what they believed was the huge compensation package of the then PPP President, Bharrat Jagdeo. Ramjattan tried unsuccessfully to reverse that in Parliament through legislative action. Once in power, Ramjattan's coalition somersaulted. Instead, they shockingly increased their own salary and allowances (of the President, the Prime Minister, Government Ministers, and MPs). It was a whopping 50%+ in salary and 100%+ increase in allowances. Even Nagamootoo earn more than Jagdeo. The coalition has gone silent on this dramatic increase in salaries and allowances. They claimed that higher salary would lower or even check corruption. Did that happen? No.  

While a strong constitution is required to help maintain social order, it is generally believed that that a good constitution based on democratic principles must not give too much power to the Presidency. An imperial presidency for a democracy is not needed. The naked exercise of power under the existing 1980 constitution, without any fear of being prosecuted now or later for any civil or criminal matter, have led  to executive abuses. Some even say lawlessness!  

During the past week, former Attorney General Anil Nandalall enumerated a number of occasions when President David Granger violated the constitution. Anil cited, for example, the unilateral appointment of the GECOM Chair; the removal from office of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Mr Carvil Duncan; and the illegal seizures of farmers’ lands from West Coast Berbice, among other cases.  

Article 180 of the constitution allows MPs to censure the President for constitutional breaches. “If notice in writing is given to the Speaker of the National Assembly signed by not less than one-half of all the elected members of the Assembly, of a motion alleging that the President has committed any violation of the Constitution or any gross misconduct and specifying the particulars of the allegations,” a tribunal could be established under this article to investigate those allegations.

Accordingly, I wonder: "why can’t the PPP move a constitutional motion against the President for violating the constitution for which he could be removed from office if found guilty?" I know that the PPP will require a simple majority vote (one more than they currently have) plus will require the permission of the PNC Speaker to approve the tabling of the motion. It does not matter if the motion fails or is rejected, but that would send a chilling message to the Guyanese public as well as to the outside world, how the rule of law and the constitution are being trampled upon.

The time for Constitutional Reform is now. Waiting for the last year of the coalition’s term in office will not be adequate to finalize this involved process, unless they are thinking of seeking an extension of the life of their government and of Parliament. That would not happen. THE TIME FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM HAS ARRIVED!