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Since the 1950s, political disturbances in Guyana have led to the loss of hundreds of lives, much property and persistent underdevelopment. In the late 1990s these disturbances resulted in the Caribbean Community-brokered Herdmanston Accord and the St. Lucia Statement, which led wide-ranging constitutional reform that the parties thought would put an end to the persistent turmoil. The constitutional reformers on all sides totally misdiagnosed the problem and as a result, the 2001 reforms institutionalised a host of new right and sectoral, management and other commissions and committees but left them all in the majoritarian, winner-takes-all, political framework. As a result, they are essentially Westminster parliamentary talk shops that can make little contribution to solving the political problems of a deeply ethnically divided society such as Guyana.
With long experience in these matters, during the independence discussion of the 1950s/1960s, the British, confronting a similar ethnic situation in Cyprus were experimenting with a form of shared governance and offered this to the Guyanese leadership, but the PPP, secure in the ethnic majority it then controlled, refused the offer. Note, the system being offered was basically along the lines of the vaunted 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades long ethnic ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and about which some six decades later, President Bill Clinton stated: ‘The most interesting thing was that by creating a space for the identity and the interests and the values of all the people involved … it was a work of surpassing genius.’
Soon after the constitution of 2001 was adopted, the disturbances returned and the major opposition party, the largely African supported Peoples’ National Congress, accusing the mainly Indian-supported PPP government of racial discrimination, demanded shared governance which it outlined in a similarly named paper in October 2002. Unsurprisingly, the PPP in 2003, still relatively safe in its ethic majority, rejected the PNC’s position and in a paper ‘Towards Greater Inclusive Governance in Guyana’, which lauded the establishment of the various commissions and committees contained in the 2001 constitution, claimed that ‘These and other reforms make the Guyana Constitution the most advanced in terms of inclusiveness and Opposition involvement in governance in the Caribbean region and certainly one of the most advanced in the world.’
This has become the mantra of the PPP, although it should not take much intelligence to recognise that constitutions are not good in themselves and/or how often they provide meaningless opportunities to talk. Constitutions are expected to bring peace, good governance and development, and thus must be properly aligned with their context. The present arrangement has brought quite the opposite because it is unsuited to the largely bicommunal ethnic context of Guyana.
Thus, having tried his best to get the PPP to adopt a more sensible course, seemingly in disgust in 2004, Jimmy Carter left Guyana claiming that, ‘Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient “winner take all” system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (the PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from a party list on a proportional basis.’
In 2011, still searching for an answer and relatively new on the political scene, the third largest party in Guyana, the Alliance For Change (AFC), in its ‘Action Plan for Guyana’ argued that our ‘economic success is being stymied by a politically backwards constitution’ and that upon coming to office it intended to establish a constitutional process and would recommend ‘amendments for the removal of the executive Presidency’. In 2015 the AFC, in coalition with a PNC-led group as A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), came to government with a manifesto commitment to change the winner-takes-all political system. But letting down both their supporters and Guyana, they failed to make any serious effort to fulfill this promise. Note that by way of an elections petition that has never been determined, the PPP claimed that the 2015 elections were rigged by the coalition.
Last year August the United States Agency for International Development’s report ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Assessment of Guyana’ stated that ‘The central premise of the team’s approach to this exercise was that the broader context of consensus and inclusion are the underlying challenges for Guyanese citizens and impede the framing of a common vision of the country’s future. …. The ruling party … and the opposition coalition …. need to find a way to form a functioning democracy based on power-sharing rather than a “winner takes all” mentality.’
Last February, a national survey carried out on behalf of the International Republican Institute by CID Gallup, asked: ‘In general, would you say that our country is heading in the right direction or the wrong direction? Only 34 % of those surveyed thought the country was heading in the right directions. Only 28% thought they were well represented in the national parliamentary councils. Only 31% felt they could freely and openly express their political affiliation during elections. 79% claimed that ethnic or racial discrimination against voters during elections was common. Only 22% said ‘definitely yes’ when asked ‘In your opinion, do the declared official election results reflect the will of the people?’ 81% thought that electoral reforms are necessary.
Well, given this backdrop, I was flabbergasted to see in Ralph Ramkarran’s Conversation Tree in the Stabroek News (24/04/2022) that the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice, Hon. Justice Adrian Saunders, had parroted the PPP’s propagandistic mantra that Guyana has ‘one of the most advanced constitutions in the region’. Added to the above, for 17 years of its 21 years of existence, clauses in this ‘most advanced’ constitution have prevented Guyana from having a confirmed chancellor and chief justice, thus undermining the separation of powers and facilitating the delivery of tainted justice to the Guyanese people. The judge spoke about the ‘dynamic, responsive and innovative’ present system without my coming upon word of concern that, particularly in a presidential system, the court system is still unable to complete elections petitions, that was in 2020 recommended by the CCJ, and thus provide timely, certain and stable governance to the Guyanese people. Even more depressing is the thought that the political struggle in Guyana for constitutional and other reforms may well reach the CCJ!
Must be Guyana’s rum!