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Repairing Guyana’s Broken System of Government by Ralph Ramkarran

The debate about the most suitable form of government for Guyana has been ongoing since the 1970s and continues with vigour today. Ravi Dev wrote on the issue recently in the Kaieteur News and Henry Jeffrey made suggestions earlier this week in SN.

After the 1973 elections, at which the PNC seized a two-third majority, voices began to be heard from within that party to the effect that the Westminster system of government was an imposition by the British, was inadequate and was obstructing economic and social transformation, even though it did not stop Barbados, Trinidad or Jamaica.

 

The PPP’s response to the call for the reform of the Westminster system of government was that if it could be demonstrated by the PNC in what ways the Westminster system was obstructing economic and social transformation, which was supported by the PPP, it would join in the effort to change the Constitution. Because no rational response was forthcoming, opposition political parties became suspicious of the PNC’s motives. They figured that if the Independence (Westminster) Constitution did not obstruct the PNC from rigging elections, subverting the judiciary and violating the Constitution in so many other ways, the reasons for its desire to amend it had to be sinister.

The 1980 Constitution exposed the real reason for the desire to amend the Independence Constitution. It was to create a powerful executive presidency, not responsible to the cabinet and with executive dominance of the parliament. This system of government was designed to ensure that Burnham remained the ‘supreme executive authority’ even if the elections could not be sufficiently rigged to give the PNC an absolute majority.

After the imposition of the 1980 Constitution, all opposition parties included at the top or near to the top of their agenda the issue of reform of the Constitution. At the second attempt in the 1999-2000 both the PPP and PNC, which commanded majority support on the Commission, were determined to retain the current system. A return to a full Westminster system or an amendment to entrench a coalition, whatever the results of the elections, were extensively discussed but did not attract sufficient support.

I have struggled mightily and for a long time, and so have many others, with ideas for an appropriate structure for our government, having regard to the specific challenges faced by Guyana.  I had supported the current system because it allowed the largest party to retain the presidency. I felt that if a situation like the current one arose a coalition government would be the natural outcome. Clearly I was wrong.

There is nothing inherently undemocratic about a minority government. Prime Minister Harper of Canada led two minority governments. No one in Guyana claims that the PPP/C government is undemocratic. But minority governments do not last and are not expected to. Guyana’s minority government appears to expect opposition support for its policies and in Parliament once it offers cooperation. The Opposition has other ideas and the result, not unexpectedly, is heightened tension and gridlock which will continue for the life of the Government. The immediate solution can only be early elections and a coalition government if the same or similar results are obtained, as occurs in almost every other country in the world.

In the meantime our broken system of government must be repaired. Guyana has an executive presidency, answerable to neither parliament nor cabinet for executive decisions, is not bound by cabinet decisions, cannot be charged or sued, virtually cannot be impeached, controls the date for elections, can be elected by a minority and dominates the Parliament through the executive if his/her party or list has a majority. Where the president’s party does not have a majority and refuses to bring other forces in the government, chaos and gridlock prevail as at the present time.

In a broad framework, we need to have a prime minister as head of government from the political party obtaining the largest number of votes, answerable to and bound by both parliament and the cabinet, who is bound by the law as every citizen, who must have not only the support of the majority of the parliament but whose government must comprise on an equitable basis at least two political parties, the other political party having obtained the second largest number of votes.

Where the position outlined above is unachievable within a specified timeframe after elections because of disagreement, the government may be formed by any one or more political parties which can command the majority support of the parliament.

This system of government should be accompanied by substantial devolution of authority to regional and local government authorities, a strengthened judiciary and independently appointed and functioning constitutional bodies.

This debate will continue, driven by the electorate, which I am sure will make its voice heard and determine the eventual outcome.