Long-standing defects in electoral laws must be addressed

—Haslyn Parris

“It is a great opportunity which should lead to improvement in the method of governance,” Parris said during a recent telephone interview.  “We can put the ‘demos’ back in democracy,” he said pointing to the Greek origins of the word. ‘Demos’ means “the people” and is one of the root words of ‘democracy‘; the other is kratein which means ‘to rule.‘

“We have a façade of democracy,” Parris said, saying that the people need to be engaged by the government as it does its business.  In the current system, governance is centred too much on certain figures, particularly the President, he observed, and because of this the president always becomes the centre of attention when things go well or badly in the country.  “I think governance is about playing concerto grosso as opposed to the concerto where you focus on an individual,” he said.

Following the November 28 polls, the PPP/C, which had a majority government since 1992, retained the presidency but lost control of the 65-seat Parliament to the opposition APNU and AFC. With no party securing an outright parliamentary majority, political consensus will be critical to the effective functioning of the government.

Parris, who was a former minister in the PNC government, indicated that the hung parliament has brought about a series of complexities of which many persons seemed unaware. He indicated that that one of the complexities is that under a hung parliament the opposition or the government could call an election at any time. If there is indeed another election, Parris asked whether these elections would be conducted under these same electoral rules.

He pointed to a USAID-commission report produced in 2005 which showed deficiencies in the laws relating to the electoral process. Parris, Priya Manickchand and Maurice Henry were the consultants involved in this project. He said that the consultants indentified several gaps, ambiguities and contradictions in the laws that were pertinent to the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom). According to him, one of the gaps existing is that the law does not say how long someone should be Chairman of Gecom.   The law similarly does not say how the elections commission should report to parliament. Parris, who was a former Gecom commissioner, also pointed to technology issues relating to the electoral process and to the formulae used to determine how seats in the House are calculated.

Fixing the inadequacies of the laws would not be an easy task, Parris opined, while adding that the parties need to be dealt with urgently but in an ongoing fashion.  If these matters are not addressed Guyana would be heading to a level of absurdity, Parris argued. In addition to this, the parties will have to see how they can collaborate on other areas such as the budget.

Further Parris said he would like to see a feedback mechanism being put in place so that the Parliament could find out about the population and what is aching them.  He said that political parties when campaigning come up with manifestos which tell people what the party will do for them. These manifestos, he said, do not come out of a consultative process. “It makes no sense giving me a Rolls Royce when my immediate problem is that I am hungry and I need food,” he said. He called for a system that would tell the House in a timely manner what is happening in certain areas and where the people face problems.

The opposition APNU and AFC are currently in talks about pursuing a common parliamentary agenda when the 10th parliament is convened some time next month.  The two parties have been meeting with each other and have also been engaging the government.  On Thursday, representatives from all three parties met, and the PPP/C agreed to a formal exchange of priorities prior to the convening of parliament. Finance minister Dr Ashni Singh is to meet with two identified finance persons of the APNU and AFC in the near future to consult on the preparation of the Budget 2012.”

APNU Leader David Granger said that his party will use the National Assembly to fulfil its commitments to the electorate.”The National Assembly as the legislative branch of government is the most important branch because it makes the laws.  I am convinced that between the AFC and the APNU, we are committed to seeing transformation in Guyana. “The executive will learn that the executive branch is the superior branch,” Granger said, while adding that “the judiciary will learn that it no longer needs to fear the executive branch.”   “I regard 28th November as a vote against executive lawlessness in Guyana,” Granger said.

Granger said that Guyanese wanted to see a reduction in crime, greater accountability by the Guyana Police Force, the alleviation of poverty and an end to discrimination and marginalization.   “We are going to pursue change in every respect,” he said.  The APNU, Granger continued, remains committed to a government of national unity but it is clear that the PPP/C does not share the same view.

Meanwhile, AFC leader Raphael Trotman told Stabroek News that he believes that in the next parliament both the APNU and the PPP/C will want to court the AFC.  However, he thought it was expected that the AFC and the APNU “will have a firmer and better relations based on mutual respect and parity.”  “We will give as much respect as we receive,” he said.

In response to a question from this newspaper, Trotman indicated that during the last parliament, the AFC’s Chief Whip, the late Sheila Holder, had relatively good relations with Gail Teixeira, the government’s Chief Whip and Lance Carberry, the opposition Chief Whip.  He noted though that there were some instances where the AFC was totally ignored, and that this was a matter of concern to his party.

Trotman expressed the view that the role of the Chief Whips would be extremely important in this parliament.  The Chief Whips of parties generally keep their party representatives in line for voting and interface with the Speaker, Clerk and staff on a direct basis on behalf of the parties.

“In this 10th Parliament, the work of the Whips will be truly pushed to the limit as there is a one seat majority on the opposition side. A missing member due to illness, or otherwise can have serious repercussions on either side,” he said.  “Many ministers travel and I have no doubt that travel will be trimmed significantly,” he added.

With control of the House, the opposition parties can now introduce and pass various pieces of legislation. The opposition parties, however, cannot introduce legislation related to increased taxes or expenditure from the Consolidated Fund.

Article 171 (1) of the constitution speaks about the introduction of Bills.  “Subject to the provisions of this constitution and of the rules of procedure of the National Assembly, any member of the Assembly may introduce any Bill or propose any motion for debate in, or may present any petition to the Assembly and the same shall be debated and disposed of according to the rules of procedure of the Assembly.“  Article 171 (2) says that except on the recommendation or with the consent of the Cabinet signified by a Minister, the Assembly shall not-

(a) proceed upon any Bill (including any amendment to a Bill) which, in the opinion of the person presiding, makes provision for any of the following purposes-

(1) for imposing or increasing any tax;  (ii) for imposing any charge upon the Consolidated Fund or any other public fund of Guyana or for altering any such charge otherwise than by reducing it; (iii) for the payment , issue or withdrawal from the Consolidated Fund or any other public fund of Guyana of any moneys not charged thereon or any increase in the amount of such a payment, issue or withdrawal; or (iv) for compounding or remitting any debt due to Guyana.

The opposition parties will also chair the Appointments Committee in the National Assembly which would allow them to chair many parliamentary committees and have greater influence in the formation of constitutional commissions such as the Public Procurement Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Police Service Commission, the Ethnic Relations Commission and others.

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