Our constitution which has been modelled and inspired by the British is uninspiring and flawed. It has not stimulated the population, but interestingly, it has instilled power in the ruling elites who have benefited immensely from it over the years. The constitution was created by politicians for politicians, but this seminal document is soulless. On many occasions it did not protect the people from the abuses by the state.
The present constitution originated from the May 1966 constitution on the attainment of independence and was enacted in October 1980 following a nation-wide referendum that was boycotted by the PPP. Among other things, the Constitution reaffirmed the principle that Guyana is a democratic state founded on the rule of law, with executive power vested in the President. It created a number of organs that were consistent with the socialist political system in Cuba and a presidency with supreme power who is immune from prosecution while in office.
While in opposition, the PPP cabal had criticized the constitution and dubbed it as the “Burnham constitution.” It had vowed to amend it in order to reduce the powers of the presidency if elected to office. However, during the PPP’s 23 years reign from 1992 to 2015, it did not fulfill its promise to amend the constitution. Instead, the PPP made some cosmetic changes, but kept the powers of the Presidency intact and used them to its advantage to strengthen its autocratic rule on the nation. It also praised the Constitution as one of the most progressive in the Caribbean.
The current administration, when in opposition did the same. It criticized the PPP government for abusing the Constitution and promised to amend it if elected. The APNU+AFC opposition claimed that the Constitution in its existing form did not serve the interest of the people but those in power and promised to appoint a Commission to amend it within three months of taking office.
Their intent was to reduce the power of the Presidency and include the Bill of Rights in the constitution to protect the ethos of the nation’s liberal democracy and individual rights and freedoms. Now in office for almost three years, the coalition government seems to renege on its campaign promise to amend the Constitution, which was one of the key items in their Manifesto.
Instead of appointing a Commission to examine the Constitution and recommend changes, the government appointed a Steering Committee which suggests that it was serious about amending the Constitution in a two-stage approach, first, a Steering Committee followed by a Commission.In April of last year, the Steering Committee handed its recommendation to the Prime Minister with the belief that it would have been debated by the cabinet.
Included in the recommendations are the reduction of the powers of the President, decentralization of power to the municipalities and the ten regions and the reorganization of the electoral system from proportional representation to first-past-the post. The goal of the latter is for the constituents to know their representatives and to hold them accountable.
However, the recommendations hit a raw nerve with the President who stated that he did not want a “boardroom constitutional reform” which means he did not want a group of people to sit in a boardroom and make changes to the constitution. He wanted the voices of the people from the various communities to be heard.
The nation’s worst fears were realized because there seems to be different positions between the coalition partners on constitutional reform. This threw the entire reform process of the constitution into a tailspin and dampen all future prospects for Constitutional reform. Since then, there has not been any serious discussion of constitution reform by this government.
It is rather unfortunate that Constitutional reform which has been a major plank of the coalition parties in the last election has been stalled. The truth is no president, past or present wants his powers to be reduced while in office because they believe it will inhibit their authority.
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