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It goes without saying, particularly in an ethnically divided society such as Guyana, that if the outcome of an electoral reform process is not viewed as legitimate by the vast majority of the citizens, the outcome of any elections will be similarly tainted. Ideally, for an elections system to be considered legitimate in Guyana, at a minimum it must be perceived as having been validated by a majority of both Africans and Indians. Since sectoral elections are not traditional in Guyana, this would means that whatever reforms are legalized must have the endorsement of the representatives of both these ethnicities.
We might speculate and quarrel as much as we like about why this is so – who is wicked and at fault – but it will not change the resultant illegitimacy of the process in the eyes of the alienated. With a situation not too dissimilar from Guyana, the Israeli leadership having rejected the United Nations ‘two states’ solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained last Wednesday that the only remaining options are to ‘conquer’ or ‘deter’ the Palestinian leadership, and recognising he cannot achieve the former he is set upon the latter with dire consequences! One may chose to proceed without the concurrence of the other party but one must also be prepared to live – as we in Guyana have for decades – with the consequences.
Therefore, as we proceed with electoral reform, it may be useful to remember that the present constitution (the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group – some of which are in written form – that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people) resulted from a quite substantial reform process at the beginning of this century, which was itself the outcome of much protest and disturbance. The process that lead to its creation and some of the principles in it, provides a template for broad discourse and consensual outcomes that could be the foundation of constitutional and electoral reform processes today.
By way of the Caricom-brokered Herdmanston Accord that ended the disturbances, the parties established a Constitutional Reform Commission with a wide mandate and a broad-based membership. Ten commissioners were drawn from the political parties in parliament – 5 from the PPP, 5 from the opposition parties – and one each from the labour movement, private sector, indigenous peoples, women’s organisations, youth organisations, the Guyana Bar Association and farmers.
Given the present concern about the proposed involvement of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the present reform process, the commission also had the responsibility to acquire any expertise it required and did so in the fields of human and gender rights, governmental systems, consociational democracy, etc. Indeed, on that occasion the commission appeared to have worked with the National Democratic Institute, which may be considered the United States counterpart of the IRI. But there are other reputable nonpartisan international organizations such as the The International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that come highly recommended.
The preamble to the Constitution made provisions for their amendment to reflect ‘future changes in our society … (that) include the commitments, concepts and other principles proclaimed in this preamble.’ One of the principles is to, ‘Forge a system of government that promotes concerted efforts and broad-based participation in national decision-making in order to develop a viable economy and harmonious community based upon democratic values, social justice, fundamental human rights and the rule of law.’ Then Article 119A instructs that the ‘the National Assembly shall establish a Parliamentary Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform for the purpose of continually reviewing the effectiveness of the working of the Constitution and making periodic reports thereon to the Assembly, with proposals for reform as necessary.’
Needless to say, the economy is far from viable, the community is less harmonious than when the Constitution was being written, democracy has been universally subverted and the Constitutional Reform Committee has largely been in abeyance!
Last week I argued that in a liberal democracy since parties come to and lose government by way of elections, electoral reforms cannot legitimately be the business of the government alone. Although the 2000 arrangement may be too elaborate, the context and principles which gave rise to arrangements that produced the present Constitution could and perhaps should form the basis of any important reform going forward.