When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.
The article mentioned the reduction of presidential powers and providing for post-elections coalitions. It made no mention of the big ticket items that the APNU-AFC’s manifesto promised; 1. Separate presidential elections; 2. The candidate achieving the second highest votes becoming the prime minister; 3. All parties obtaining 15 percent of the votes and higher being entitled to share in the government.
The debate on constitutional reform needs to be elevated from merely presidential powers and post-coalition arrangements. These issues are important. Many are concerned about them and rightly so. But they do not compare to the deep constitutional innovations that would involve shared governance which Cheddi Jagan promised and Desmond Hoyte supported.
The heirs of these leaders have abandoned any intention working towards a political solution by way of constitutional reform. Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo has revived the failed policy of 2003 of ‘building trust and confidence’ before moving to executive power sharing. The purpose of that policy was to deflect calls for shared governance. Its revival at this time seems to have a similar objective. President Granger is silent, and does not now even engage on the issue, not that he would be asked any sensitive questions on his now rare interviews with sympathetic journalists.
There was a children’s cough medicine on the market some years ago that was advertised to contain a substance called ‘silentium,’ which was supposed to stop the coughing. The word has stayed with me over the years and I have adapted its meaning to not speaking when required to do so. Whenever my children, as they were growing up, and now my grandchildren, decline to, or refrain from answering a question or speaking when they are required to, I would question whether they may have taken ‘silentium.’ APNU appears to have taken ‘silentium’ on the issue of constitutional reform and the AFC appears to have taken ‘silentium’ on the fact that a political solution for Guyana was promised in the manifesto.
The issue of presidential powers cannot be resolved unless there is agreement as to where executive authority should reside. The president is the chief executive authority under our Constitution. If some executive authority is removed from the office of president, it must be exercised by some other agency. It can be by the Cabinet, which was the decision-making authority prior to 1980. The 1980 constitution converted the cabinet to an advisory body, although it still functions as a decision-making body. Alternatively, executive authority can be shared by the President and Prime Minister whereby the President is constitutionally responsible for some functions such as national security, foreign affairs and economic affairs, including of course being head of the government, head of cabinet and commander in chief. The prime minister could be constitutionally responsible for the other, constitutionally designated ministries, with defined governmental decisions being subject to cabinet approval. There are other formulas which can be debated.
The issue of post-election coalitions is completely misunderstood. In 2011 there was no constitutional prohibition to then President Donald Ramotar inviting now President Granger to be his prime minister and to nominate ministers for service in the Government in accordance with the proportion of votes it obtained. Alternatively, it could have invited the AFC to similarly nominate a prime minister and ministers to the cabinet. Or he could have invited both. In fact, if then President Ramotar had followed either or both of those eminently sensible and responsible courses, adopted all over the rational world, he would have still been president today and a truly historic figure, the first to unite the country since 1953. But he allowed history to pass him by, imbued by the national culture of political dominance which is responsible for the shortsightedness that pervades Guyana’s politics. I publicly advised him when he was President that he ‘had the pen of history in his hand.’ He ignored it.
What the constitution does not allow is for anyone other than the nominee for the party obtaining the majority or plurality of votes from becoming the president. The post of the presidency cannot be negotiated after the elections. Everything else can be. The same position would remain in the APNU+AFC manifesto proposals are adopted. Whoever obtains the majority would become the president. If Guyana wishes it can provide for the president to be elected by the National Assembly after the elections, as happens in many countries, including Surinam. This would allow for post-election negotiations on the presidency as well as the government.