The general population has no idea what is going on with all these parliamentary motions with no outcome, followed by recourse to the courts and judges’ decisions whose implications the political parties then dispute among themselves. The thing is, the bewildered electorate harbours the sneaking suspicion that the lawyers and senior politicians on all sides of the divide have no clear idea about what is going on either, let alone what the implications constitutionally of all these actions are. Whatever it is, as far as the average citizen is concerned, it has nothing to do with his or her daily life, and doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to governing the country either.
Democracy anywhere is on the messy side; after all, it is premised on the fact that the vast majority of people do not agree on everything all of the time or even most of the time. The older democracies at least have the advantage of experience behind them, and the existence of a framework of rules and conventions which have been adjusted over the decades (or centuries in some cases) to meet conditions or circumstances which were not anticipated in earlier times. We are relative newcomers to these arrangements, and in some respects we are still feeling our way. In addition, of course, Guyana is less homogeneous than some of these older societies were when they started out on their journey in the direction of a modern democracy, in addition to which they have had the time to evolve traditions in respect of democratic practices.
It was easier with the 1966 constitution, which if not exactly standard issue, where its basics were concerned incorporated certain standard principles, and in its technical aspects was an adapted version of what the imperial power had found workable elsewhere in its former colonies. Since it was close to the Westminster model, there were precedents from related jurisdictions which could be summoned in defence of one or another mode of proceeding. The problem with the 1980 constitution is that it is a hybrid, with elements of Westminster but with much else which diverges from it.
It is no news to anyone that we now have a presidential system, and its framers do not seem to have envisaged that the party which won the presidency would not also control the Parliament. And to make sure of that, the constitution was drafted in such a way that after a general election, parties which did not win a plurality of the votes could not combine to form a coalition to keep out of office a party which did. Any coalitions had to be put together before going to the polls – the current APNU alliance being an example in point.
Be that as it may, we have now found ourselves – if not exactly in virgin terrain – at least in a landscape in which everything is in dispute, including the matter of which precedents apply, if any do at all. Where motions are concerned, the governing party clearly adheres to the school of thought that it is not bound by any of them – precedent or no – and has also challenged the legality of the opposition using its majority to pass some of them in the first instance. So now we (and the courts) are saddled with all these tiresome legal cases, not to mention being mired in an endless discussion of the powers of the judiciary in relation to Parliament, etc, etc. Some of what emerges may be important in terms of clarification of our constitutional framework, but most of it appears utterly pointless and irrelevant. The only objective it would seem to have is to drive us into a cul-de-sac where nothing can be achieved at all at a legislative level.
This is not to say that the opposition too hasn’t made its own contribution to the lack of a sense of direction in Parliament. There have been too many motions and not enough substance, more especially given that the former are being ignored and/or challenged in the courts by the government. Following the motion of no confidence in Minister Rohee, the opposition decided on a course of action which was particularly ill advised given that they had other options, although with the matter still in court, an opportunity was afforded both sides to postpone the Parliamentary Privileges Committee hearing dealing with it. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise, and allows attention to be focused on more pressing matters.
In addition, as many have remarked before, the opposition appears to citizens to be in something of disarray, with no clear aims, no obvious strategy and no effective co-ordination between the two opposition parties. The onus is on APNU to do the co-ordinating and to set up mechanisms so that everyone has the same page open in the textbook on tactics in Parliament.
Having said that, of course, the opposition’s one substantial achievement is the passing of the bill to cap former presidents’ benefits. That was done on Friday, although it might be noted that it has taken a whole year for them to accomplish this, despite the fact that it was a promise made to the electorate on the campaign trail. Never mind, perhaps it indicates a change of approach at last. Far more than anything else the opposition has done in the last year, it presents the government with a dilemma, because now the President will refuse to sign it at the ruling party’s peril.
While as we reported yesterday, government members described it as ‘vindictive,’ among other things, it will not for technical legal reasons affect former president, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo. As such, therefore, the accusations of vindictiveness sound rather hollow. Since former president, Mr Samuel Hinds, and current holder of the office, Mr Donald Ramotar will also not be encompassed by the bill should it be signed into law, it is difficult to see exactly what the government side is objecting to, other than the fact that it is an opposition bill.
If the government refuses to give a considered hearing to everything the opposition brings to the National Assembly, no matter how reasonable, it is telling the nation in a rather direct way that it is simply not prepared to work with the majority in Parliament. The PPP cannot expect that the electorate will not draw the inevitable conclusions from what they see happening, and will not dismiss without further ado what the ruling party has to say on the subject.
If this bill should mark the turning point in the approach of the opposition, it should also mark a crossroads for the government. They have to take a substantive decision, not a cosmetic one on this occasion, and it should cause them to reflect on whether they should not make a larger strategic change of direction. So far they have been obsessed with demonstrating to their supporters that government is impossible unless they have an overall majority; what they may find is that the message which comes across is not the one they intended.