Several opposition members are of the opinion that Guyana is experiencing unprecedented abuse of Executive power,
and that there is critical need to alter the boundless authority afforded the Head of State.
On a recently televised Alliance For Change (AFC) Programme, featuring Leader of the party, Khemraj Ramjattan, Chairman Nigel Hughes and House Speaker Raphael Trotman, sought to share this perspective.
Hughes outlined that one of the important things the Constitution speaks to is the distribution of power and how it should be exercised. Referring to Article 51, the attorney-at-law said that supreme democratic power should be vested in three organs; the Presidency, Parliament and Cabinet.
He emphasised that a worrying problem exists in that equation.
“What you have is the President being a part of the parliament and then when you go to Cabinet, you have him there, where he has supreme executive power. So in effect, he has power of all three organs of the state.
“He dominates them, and this is long before we come to discuss his immunities from suit, which means that in the exercise of his executive power, he is not answerable to the court or anyone and can only be removed by grave misconduct, ill-health or loss of confidence in him by the House.”
Hughes, a practicing Attorney, said that the current structure of the Constitution gives the President absolute power to govern, and that the AFC has advocated for this to be addressed with urgency, for power, he opined, must be distributed evenly.
The other difficulty with the Constitution and the powers vested in the President Hughes said, is how one becomes president due to the party list system.
“Let’s say you have three political parties in a race. One gets 33 percent of the votes, the other 32 and the last 31 for argument sake. The party with the 33 percent gets to be President with full executive power. In essence you are giving this person or party, which doesn’t represent a plurality, the presidency, and it puts the nation particularly at a disadvantage, because you have people from different cultural backgrounds not being represented when the 32 and
31 percentages are combined.
“If you continue this, then you perpetuate a system where others are excluded and they will have no representation in the executive and the executive is where the decisions are really made, that is where policies are made and carried out.”
House Speaker Raphael Trotman reflected that from 1999 to 2001, the nation went through a period of constitutional reform.
“We failed to really grapple it and deal with the issue of power distribution. Most right-thinking Guyanese believe that the Constitution should be scrapped completely and have a new document, because it needs serious overhauling. Instead, we tinkered mostly with it and we are reaping some of the burdens of failing to really face what the problems really were.”
Trotman said that from his understanding, some experts and even ordinary citizens believe that the nation might be better off with the pre-1966-69 Constitution, where Parliamentarians were elected by constituents rather than the party list system, which he abhors.
He said that in those days when there was a Governor-General, that person was seen as the “father of the nation” and not a politician.
The House Speaker said that such a person “did not get involved in cussing down at Babu John or Cuffy Square, but rather, (he would be) the person who would intervene and ensure that the forces were not used as a tool of oppression”.
Trotman said that ultimately there is need for politicians to hear from the people and that the electorate should vote in a referendum. He believes that the citizens need a chance in this process to express their views and decide what’s in their best interest.
Asked to share his views on the points expressed by the two AFC politicians, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)’s
Shadow Minister of Finance, Carl Greenidge said that while he agreed with Hughes’ point, he did not perceive it to be lethal.
Greenidge emphasised that if there are appropriate checks and balances, the legislature could provide safeguards against a minority Government implementing controversial, discriminatory or self-serving policies.
The former finance minister believes that the bigger problem has to do with the safeguards being undermined by the Presidency.
He said that the supremacy of the President on the Executive front is not unusual, although elsewhere, the acceptability of that supremacy rests on due process in the appointment of heads of Executive agencies and the use and independence of Constitutional Bodies such as the Judicial Appellate Tribunal and the Public Service Commission.
Greenidge said that in Guyana, the independence of these bodies has been destroyed with the appointment of relatives of Ministers and of financially dependent persons who represent state-dependent agencies.
The result, he said, is a President who can initiate legislation in his Cabinet, and then pass it through the Legislature via his party’s Members of Parliament and then have it assented to or not by himself. The APNU politician said that this is tantamount to the undermining of democracy and the separation of powers.
Greenidge said that the current system leaves the nation with a President who carries out the functions formerly performed by the Governor-General and the non-Executive President, which includes arbitration between Parties in situations of deadlock in the Assembly, for example. In this case, however, he said that the President as arbitrator is part of the deadlock or problem.
“He therefore cannot be an honest broker for he (Ramotar) is facing a conflict of interest. The system permits this without any formal constraints against abuse, as has currently occurred in the case of prorogation,” the Public Accounts Committee
APNU’s Shadow Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine, who is also a member of the Constitutional Reform Committee, in an earlier interview with this publication said that in light of the prorogation of the Parliament, it is extremely critical for the Constitution to be amended.
He too admitted that the Committee never finished the work it was supposed to get done and because of that, the nation is operating with an incomplete reform of the electoral system. “The electoral aspect of the system is very underdeveloped and very crude,” Dr. Roopnaraine added.
He said that there is serious need for a new round of intense constitutional reform and for emphasis to be placed on the relationship between the President and how his powers can affect the Parliament.
Greenidge, in adding to Roopnaraine’s statements, remarked that the Constitutional reform process was, it seems, hijacked by the admirers of the late former PPP President Dr. Cheddi Jagan. The politician expressed that Constitution should not be written to facilitate the assumption that future Presidents would be angels.
“People, unlike angels, are flawed and a Constitution should be crafted largely to permit them to help to govern without giving them much room to overindulge. We are experiencing that phenomenon of abuse of Presidential powers in Guyana today, not for the first time, but now, worse than ever,” he added.
He suggested that Guyana considers having a second Chamber (non-elected) as found elsewhere in the region, in which one could repose powers of technical and constitutional review or vetting of specific actions by the elected House.
He posited that some of the eroded safeguards could be protected by such an Assembly along with a Constitutional President.
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