The column below first appeared on Ralph Ramkarran’s blog www.conversationtree.gy
Both the PPP and the PNCR supported the proposals for electoral reform which were
recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) in 2000. The CRC had recommended the retention of the proportional representation system but urged that the “electoral system should include an element of geographical representation.”
While the CRC did not make any recommendations of how this could be accomplished, it was conscious of article 160(2) of the Constitution which enables Parliament to provide for up to 50 per cent of its seats to be elected from geographical constituencies while distributing the other 50 per cent in such a way as to maintain strict proportionality.
The Oversight Committee was appointed by the National Assembly to consider the recommendations of the CRC and to draft legislation to put the recommendations into effect. In relation to electoral reform the Oversight Committee reported as follows: “…the constraints imposed by the Herdmanston timetable have implied the utilization of the 10 administrative regions as the geographical constituencies for the next general elections since there is not time enough to engage in a process of constituency demarcation, never an uncontroversial matter even under the best of conditions.”
The “Herdmanston timetable” referred to the requirement of the Herdmanston Accord, signed by then President Janet Jagan and Desmond Hoyte in 1998 to resolve the post electoral unrest after the 1997 general elections. It provided that new general elections be held by 2001 and this time had been rapidly approaching. Because of time constraints, therefore, it was agreed that the 10 regions would be designated as 10 constituencies and a total of 25 members would be elected to represent these geographic constituencies. This system was put in place by amending the Representation of the People Act, the main legislation which deals with elections.
However, the Oversight Committee agreed that the recommended amendment outlined above was intended only for the upcoming elections and not for the future. The report stated: “…it has been agreed that the present reforms to the electoral system are being designed specifically for the next [Herdmanston] general elections and are not meant to be final for all time.” This was subscribed to by all political parties represented in the National Assembly, particularly the PPP and the PNCR.
No less a person than President Ramotar, then a Member of Parliament, moved a motion in the National Assembly in 2004 which was passed on December 16, 2004 resolving that the National Assembly establish a Special Select Committee to recommend to the National Assembly whether the 25 seats should be increased and that the Special Select Committee report to the National Assembly within two months so as to facilitate the elections due in 2006.
One preamble proposes the resolution, “in order to complete the reforms proposed by the Constitution Reform Commission …” There can be no doubt therefore that the PPP had no objection to increasing the geographical seats to at least 32, half of the 65, as provided for by the Constitution.
Shooting itself in the foot as it usually does, as in the case of the Public Procurement Commission by insisting on unanimity, or due to another act of wilful and reckless non-cooperation, the PNCR voted against the motion. It insisted that the issue should be referred to the Constitution Reform Committee of the National Assembly, rather than a Special Select Committee, even though the issue did not involve amendment to the Constitution.
The result of this contrived disagreement is that the Special Select Committee was not appointed and electoral reform did not take place. In the meantime it is obvious that that the hurried establishment of 10 constituencies to satisfy the Herdmanston requirements for the 2001 elections did not serve the purpose. It has not resolved the issue of linking members of the National Assembly with constituencies in such a way that every community can boast its own MP who would be available to represent their interests. Regions do not even know their MPs who have no offices in their Regions and who do not consistently represent their direct interests, if at all.
The Oversight Committee said, as quoted above, that demarcating constituencies is never uncontroversial. This ought not to be the case in our situation. In our last elections under the first past the post system held in 1964 there were 35 constituencies. If a reform of the system follows our constitutional prescription, there will be 32 constituencies. There is, therefore, a strong basis for early agreement.
Electoral reform has dropped through the cracks and is probably not seen as a priority at this time, the parties being primarily concerned with issues of more immediate consequences, such as the unproductive and unlawful vendetta against Minister Clement Rohee. It is rather surprising that the political parties in the National Assembly are not seizing opportunities where they already exist to try to achieve something for the people of Guyana who are getting tired of the constant bickering and are showering blame on all sides in the House for the gridlock regardless of who is right or who is wrong.