In his article last Wednesday in Future Notes, (‘Some suggestions for constitutional reform’), Dr. Henry Jeffrey, advanced extensive views on constitutional reform. In order not to lose the momentum and opportunity of a discourse on the subject, I now seek to give some opinions of my own in the hope that they will add to the debate to find a workable and acceptable constitutional arrangement that will create a framework for at least both the major political parties to share the government. This is an outcome that both Dr. Jeffrey and I seek. It is an outcome that is necessitated by a constitution under which a party can ‘lose the elections and still win,’ or where minority governments can become a ‘feature’ of Guyana’s political future, as were approvingly conjectured by Dr. Luncheon in his press conference last week.
The existence of two large ethnic blocs which harbor historic suspicions and resentments about each other and which seek security in organizational form through political parties is the fundamental issue that has been at the core of all of Guyana’s civil and political turmoil and instability since 1955. The exacerbating consequences of colonial exploitation through slavery and indentureship and imperialist intervention have had their not insignificant impact. Until today’s politically disputatious situation, created by our history and overshadowed by ethnicity, is contained by a workable constitutional system, Guyana will show little political and economic progress and instability will continue.
The first step is to persuade all political parties to accept that Guyana needs a government that includes at least the two main political parties. The PPP once championed this position but reneged on it after gaining of political office in 1992. While the PPP is dangling before the public a confusing concatenation of alliance formats, including the national democratic front, the broad left front, shared governance by first building trust, which it claims from the other side of its mouth already exists through the implementation of constitutional reforms, the ‘winner does not take all,’ but which already exists through the civic alliance, promoting a different one each day of the week, the rest of Guyana ought to move forward with the discourse on constitutional reform. The PPP will undoubtedly catch up in due course, either willingly or of necessity.
Our constitutional system has been damaged by the attachment of the presidential carbuncle to our Westminster system for no good reason other than grandiosity. It has sucked the lifeblood from a vibrant, cabinet system of government and imposed a commanding authority bloated with supreme executive power over compliant ‘advisers’ holding ministerial posts. I therefore propose a Cabinet system of government with a Prime Minister as head of government, subject to term limits, and a cabinet with the right to vote, not as advisers as at present. The President would be a ceremonial head of state elected by a two-third majority of the National Assembly. Essentially, this means returning to our Independence Constitution, which worked well until it was subverted.
How would our Independence Constitution have been applied with the 2011 electoral results? The ceremonial President would have been obliged to invite the leader of the party, which the President believes is capable of obtaining the support of the majority of members of the National Assembly, to form the government. Therefore, whichever party the President invited to form the government would have to satisfy him or her that it has the support of at least one other political party in the National Assembly. This would have forced the formation of a coalition government or at least forced negotiations by the party with one or more of the others for a commitment to support.
If the PPP now has concerns that 1964 might be repeated when it obtained the plurality but was not invited to form the government, the appropriate article in the constitution can be amended to impose a duty on the President to first invite the party obtaining the plurality at the elections to form the government. Only if that party declares to the President that it is unable to form a government which would receive the support of the majority of members of the National Assembly would the President be able to then invite the party obtaining the second largest number of votes to form the government. The President would have power to require a vote of confidence in the government as the first order of business of the National Assembly.
I agree with Dr. Jeffrey’s view that a coalition government can be ensured by a provision in the constitution that any party obtaining more than ten percent of the vote would be entitled to join the government if it so wishes. Of course, this would make the job of the President of inviting the formation of a government to be a mere formality.
Devising a system for the scrutiny of government without an opposition would be a challenge. I do not believe that less dominance by the executive of the legislature by keeping ministers away from membership of the legislature and even electoral reform to introduce realistically sized constituencies would guarantee more independence of members of the body. Ethnically driven political solidarity and the possible interruption of benefits flowing from membership would defeat such an effort. One possibility that comes to mind is an upper chamber consisting of persons with no party political affiliation nominated from civil society by the President in his own deliberate judgment. To be effective it would have power to meaningfully influence legislation that comes before it.