A very important case is being heard at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on whether the President of Guyana can seek a third term in office. The case centers on an argument of whether parliament is sovereign over the people or vice versa.
An act was passed by Guyana parliament (in 2000) limiting the President to two terms. A private citizen (Cedric Richardson) challenged the law (arguing it restricts his choice of candidates on election of the President). The High Court and the Appeals Court in Guyana ruled that term limits are unconstitutional unless done by referendum (vote by the population) with the court saying people are sovereign over parliament. This prompted an appeal by the Guyana government to the CCJ.
Guyana historically had been a parliamentary Westminster system up until 1980. The dictator Forbes Burnham, leader of the PNC party, who was installed into office by the CIA in December 1964, carried out a fraudulent referendum in July 1978 to replace the 1966 Westminster independence constitution. The referendum, like all prior elections conducted under the PNC, was rigged. The referendum was boycotted with international observers saying some 10% of the population voted. Burnham claimed a massive victory and dumped the Westminster model replacing it with his own constitution that came to be known by the moniker “Burnham constitution”. Prior to the referendum, Burnham passed an act that declarations from the elections commission were not subject to appeal. The fraudulent referendum and prior rigged elections as well as laws and Burnham constitution itself could not be challenged in court. Burnham appointed rubber stamp judges controlling the court and decisions. Appeals to the Privy Council were banned. Several people lost their lives or limbs criticizing or opposing the Burnham constitution.
Under the new constitution, Burnham replaced the Prime Minister as head of government with the President. He served as President for life dying in office in August 1985. One of his several deputies Desmond Hoyte succeed him. Hoyte rigged elections in 1985 to extend the dictatorship. Facing international pressure from the US, UK, Canada and other international forces, Hoyte agreed to hold democratic elections. Hoyte who lost power to Cheddi Jagan in independent Guyana’s first democratic elections in October 1992. Jagan, communist leader of the PPP, was removed from office by the CIA and British Intelligence. Hoyte was defeated again in elections in 1997. Refusing to accept election results certified as free and fair by international observers, Hoyte called out his supporters in the streets rioting, looting, and beating supporters of the PPP. A Caricom mediation team helped to end the siege of the seat of government with a promise from the ruling PPP that there would be constitutional reform and new elections.
A constitutional review commission was established recommending several changes to the Burnham constitution. The Parliament passed an act limiting the President to two terms. With democracy restored under the PPP administration, citizens felt brave to challenge the government on several counts and the constitution itself.
A private citizen, named Richardson successfully challenged the two terms act with the court ruling that that term limit must be carried out by a referendum as stated in the Burnham constitution. The courts ruled the people are sovereign and only they, not the parliament, could amend the constitution. The current CCJ appeal hinges on whether parliament or the people (under this legal doctrine called sovereignty) can amend the constitution allowing for term limits. The government’s appeal, under the control of the PNC that imposed the Burnham constitution in 1980, argues that parliament, rather than the people, is sovereign. The PNC government’s argument is the people give up their sovereignty when they elect the parliament. Yet in a case last year before the Privy Council relating to the Brexit referendum, the court ruled the parliament as well as the people had to approve of Brexit. It is true that the people surrender their sovereignty to elected representatives at election time in exchange for good governance and passage of laws. But in Guyana, people don’t have elected representatives to speak on their behalf in a constituency. The whole country is one constituency under the Proportional Representation system and the parties appointed representatives. Thus, the parliament cannot speak for the people. And the Burnham constitution has stated that changes to the constitution can only come from the referendum process.
It is noted that almost every country (including St. Vincent, Grenada, Belize, Canada, UK, Venezuela, etc.) holds referendums on important constitutional issues. The UK government, from which Guyana’s system of governance is modeled, accepts that people are sovereign through the referendum process. The CCJ should uphold this principle. Guyana should hold a referendum on term limit. In fact, since the constitution itself was never approved by the people, and imposed illegally by the PNC dictatorship, it should be put to a national vote against the Westminster model left behind by the British.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram