During the lifetimes of Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan, the PPP twice, unanimously, decided to support a two-term presidential limit. A PPP delegation in 1995/6 proposed to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform that the constitution should be amended to provide for a two-term presidential limit. In 1999/2000, the same representation was made by the PPP to the Constitution Reform Commission. These public proposals reflected those unanimous decisions.
During the Ramotar presidency, Attorney General Anil Nandlall opposed the application by Richardson to deem as unconstitutional the amendment to the constitution that limited the presidential terms to two. Before Mr. Ramotar became president, he had publicly opposed the call for scrapping the two-term limit. He has welcomed the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
The PPP, former President Jagdeo, former Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon, all speaking for the PPP, had at one time or another, publicly expressed support for the two-term presidential limit. Mr. Jagdeo had expressed a lack of interest in a third term. However, after the PPP lost the elections in 2015, and while the Richardson case was making its way through the Guyana Court of Appeal and the CCJ, the PPP and its spokespersons fell silent on the issue of presidential term limits.
The decision last Tuesday by the CCJ upheld the appeal of the Attorney General of Guyana. The court ruled that the constitutional amendment limiting presidential term limits to two terms did not violate the constitution. It has delivered to Guyana an historic dose of democracy and justice.
The argument on behalf of Richardson was that the amendment limited the right of Guyanese to choose who they want to be the president. By doing so, the amendment adversely affected or diluted and, in effect, amended articles 1 and 9 which provided for Guyana’s “democracy” and “sovereignty.” Since articles 1 and 9 require a referendum to amend them, the amendment limiting presidential terms to two, which was passed in the National Assembly by a two-third majority, was unconstitutional. The CCJ rejected the argument and held that articles 1 and 9 were not violated by the amendment limiting presidential terms to two and that a referendum was not necessary. The court pointed to the extensive consultations held by the Constitution Reform Commission in 1999-2000, which supported the two-term limit by a 12 to 4 vote, and to the unanimous support of the amendment by the National Assembly.
The decision was a monumental victory for Guyana’s democracy, from whose people the horrifying threat of a potential life presidency has been lifted. At the same time the PPP has suffered a major electoral blow as its best known, most popular and most experienced leader will not be able to lead it as a candidate at the 2020 elections.
With the current circumstances facing the PPP and the deteriorating economic conditions and one seat majority facing APNU+AFC, together with the pending establishment of an oil economy, they should have been persuaded by now that a high degree of political unity is necessary to preserve and safeguard the billions of US dollars likely to flow into the nation’s coffers from being dissipated in waste, extravagance and corruption.
Having failed to establish inclusive governance, which both parties supported when in opposition, but failed to implement while in office, now is time for Guyanese to be offered a different kind of political party. Guyana needs a party with a programme of unity as a way out of the debilitating ethno-political controversies and insecurities which have dominated Guyana’s politics and have bred only suspicion, antagonism and political unilateralism. This third party can do so by recognizing the existence of the two major parties, the support they receive and seek as its fundamental goal to encourage these two parties to work together for the future of Guyana. Decades of political effort, including the mandate of the electorate in 2011, have all failed.
The third party, if it wins a majority or plurality, will accept the task of government in order to prevent a constitutional crisis. Under the constitution, the party obtaining a majority or plurality must hold the presidency. Until the constitution is amended, the party will be obliged to fulfill its constitutional mandate but, not being wedded to power, would propose a re-examination of this and other provisions. The difference is that, in accordance with its primary purpose, it will invite the other major parties to share in the government in accordance with their percentage of support.
If a majority or plurality is not achieved, the third party will remain in opposition but will strongly advocate and agitate for the establishment of a unity government of the major parties. If the major parties recalcitrantly resist the call for unity, the third party will support the party that agrees to implement its policies of constitutional reform leading to inclusive governance and for economic and social reform, including strong measures against poverty, crime and corruption. For decades, experts have concluded that the divisions created by ethno-political rivalries are major reasons for Guyana’s underdevelopment.
The third party would not seek to replace the two major parties. It will seek to make them winners, with both serving in government. The supporters of these parties will remain supporters and should not see it as a betrayal to support the third party, whose objective would be to ensure that there are no losers in elections. The third party must never fall victim to the lure of political office. It must have a higher purpose that resonates with the Guyanese people – unity. The unity that will be created is now a vital necessity. Statesmanship has failed Guyana so far. Electoral pressure must be brought to bear.