It is amazing the levels of misunderstanding and ignorance which exist about the Constitution of Guyana. In recent days, for example, the constitutional ‘experts’ on social media blogs have been arguing that no substantive changes to the 1980 Constitution took place under the PPPC.
This is clearly an untruth, because aspects of the 1980 Constitution were substantively revised during the Constitutional Reform Process (CRP). The CRP was initiated by the Herdmanston Accord signed between President Janet Jagan and then-Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte.
The Herdmanston Accord provided for the establishment of a Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) “with a broad-based membership, drawn from the representatives of political parties, the labour movement, religious organizations, the private sector, the youth and other social partners.”
As part of its mandate, the CRC was asked to examine measures and arrangements to improve race relations. The Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) was one of the products of that reform process.
The most odious aspects of the 1980 Constitution related to the powers of the President, and the concentration of powers in the hands of the President were subject to revision under the CRP.
Readers will recall that the 1980 Constitution made it virtually impossible to remove the President for misconduct or a violation of the Constitution. The 1980 Constitution required that in order to remove the President on any of these grounds, a motion signed by half of the members of the National Assembly first had to be presented to the Speaker, proposing a tribunal to investigate the allegations against the President.
There was to be no debate on this motion. Rather, if it was supported by a vote of 2/3 of the members of the National Assembly, a tribunal had to be appointed by the Chancellor of the Judiciary. If the tribunal found that the allegation against the President was substantiated, then by a vote of 3/4 of the National Assembly, the President would be required to resign with 3 days, unless before this he dissolved the National Assembly.
The present provisions of the Constitution provide that if the tribunal finds that the allegations against the President have been substantiated, then by a vote of 2/3 of the members of the Assembly (as against 3/4 in the 1980 Constitution) he/she shall be removed from office. The President does not have the option of vitiating the decision by dissolving the Assembly after the vote.
In terms of appointments, the 1980 Constitution provided for the President to appoint the Leader of the Opposition. The present Constitution provides for the non- governmental members of the National Assembly to do so.
The 1980 Constitution provided for the President to appoint the Commissioner of Police and all Deputy Commissioners of Police after consultation with the Police Service Commission. The present constitution requires that for these positions, the President must engage in meaningful consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and the Chairperson of the Police Service Commission, after that person would have consulted with the members of the Commission.
The 1980 Constitution provided for the Chancellor of the Judiciary and the Chief Justice to be appointed by the President. The present Constitution provides a consensual mechanism for these appointments, as well as for the position of Chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission.
It is obvious that these changes were substantive. It is therefore an unfair criticism, especially in light of the establishment of a Constitutional Reform Commission under the PPPC, for it to be argued that there have been no substantive changes to the Constitution under the PPPC.
However, it is to be conceded that the present Constitution still reposes too much authority in the hands of the Executive President. These powers make a mockery of Cabinet, as was evident a few days ago when a government official, reporting on Cabinet’s consideration of the ExxonMobil contract, noted that the President had made a decision and it was final.
Cabinet cannot compel the President to do anything that he does not wish to be done, since all Executive authority rests with the President and him alone. Such a state of affairs is incompatible with coalition politics.
Even though substantive changes have been made to aspects of the 1980 Constitution, it is still an authoritarian document, and that in itself is a source of great worry for democratic rule.
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