Forbes Burnham was a dyed-in-the- wool colonist. He admired Winston Churchill and used ‘Churchillian’ pauses in his oratory. In his personal tastes, he pandered to the trappings and tastes of monarchial rule. He saw himself as King, best symbolised by riding around the city on horseback.
Burnham’s infatuation with the British elite may have extended to the Westminster system. An academic exchange is taking place in the media on whether Burnham admired the Westminster style of government.
One of the characters in this debate may be too young to appreciate the context in which Burnham dumped the traditional Westminster system in favour of an authoritarian Constitution with a strong presidency. The other central character may have been too involved.
The authoritarian Constitution of 1980 emerged not by choice but by forced circumstances. The economic crisis of the late 1970’s had begun to bite. Food was short, promised wage increases were denied. Food was becoming scarce.
Politically, Burnham was a pariah. His regime had become isolated locally. It was in the face of a deep crisis that Burnham was confronted by the civil rebellion led by Walter Rodney.
Burnham needed to strengthen his hand to deal with his almost total loss of legitimacy and with rising opposition to his rule. And so he opted for a new that would give him supreme power and male him President for life.
He established, on the basis of a fraudulent referendum, a Constituent Assembly which was charged with drafting a new constitution.
The person who eventually piloted that constitution, through its various stages, died recently. He is on record as arguing, like Burnham, that the Westminster system was not suited to Guyana’s circumstances. And therefore a new constitution was needed
Walter Rodney dismantled all the arguments in favor of that Constitution. He described the document as Shahabuddeen’s Constitution and as the Paramount Constitution.
The first thing he noted about the Constitution was its preserve clauses. Burnham was never an elected Executive President. According to Rodney, the constitution simply said that that the present Prime Minister, on the day appointed for the new constitution to come into effect, shall assume office as President as though he was elected thereto. According to Rodney, Burnham’s rein began automatically.
The second criticism was the difficulty in democratically removing the President. Rodney described the system under which an attempt can be made to remove the President. He said, “First of all, a notice has to be given to the Speaker, signed by no less than one-half of all the elected members of the assembly, alleging that the President has committed a violation of the constitution.”
“And then, after a number of other steps, this motion is put to the National Assembly, but the National Assembly cannot debate it immediately. They will go ahead to appoint the Chancellor… who will appoint a tribunal who will consider whether the allegations are justified… And if the tribunal, by chance, should say that he should be removed they can go back to the Assembly and the Assembly can vote, by a three quarters majority, that the President should be removed.”
“Now if all of this happens, the President will have to resign within three days, unless, and this is it, he must resign in three days unless before that time he himself dissolves the parliament”.
Rodney criticised the immunities granted to Burnham, under the constitution. He noted that Burnham could not be personally answerable to any courts for the performance of the functions of his office or acts done in the performance of those functions. Further, the President could not be charged or sued in his personal capacity both during his term or after he would have left the presidency.
Rodney was also critical on the powers of appointment. Under the 1980 constitution, the President appointed the Prime Minister, the Ministers, the Vice Presidents, the Vice Ministers, He appointed the legal hierarchy.
The 1980 constitutional structure remains unchanged. But the President has either been stripped of some of his powers. However, the constitution is still an authoritarian constitution, concentrating too much power in the hands of one person and with insufficient checks and balances.
It is the continued concentration of powers in and the supremacy of the president, which is still causing concern over the potential of these powers being abused.
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