New process needed to forge new constitution – Roopnaraine

There is need for a new process to forge an entirely new constitution with the 1980 Constitution having been “contaminated” by the powers of the Presi-dent, Chairman of the main opposition APNU Dr Rupert Roopnaraine says.

“I believe we need a new process,” Dr Roopnaraine told Stabroek News yesterday suggesting that either a Constituent Assembly or Constitution-al Reform Commission be established. He said that constitutional reform has not been discussed fully by APNU but he believes that one of the priorities of the coalition would be having the president elected directly by the people rather than by virtue of being the presidential candidate stated on the list of candidates which he/she heads as at present.

Another option would be having the president elected by the National Assembly as happens in South Africa and Suriname, said.

Rupert Roopnaraine
Rupert Roopnaraine
David Granger
David Granger
Clement Rohee
Clement Rohee

In recent times, constitutional reform Roopnaraine has returned to the forefront of discussions with sections of civil society including the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) as well as the political parties such as the AFC urging that reforms be done. However, General Secre-tary of the ruling PPP Clement Rohee has said that Guyana’s constitution is one of the most advanced in the Caribbean and that constitutions were not meant to be subjected to “open heart” surgeries merely because of political disagreements and issues of governance or because of the powers of a head of state.

More than a decade after a menu of constitutional reforms was agreed to by all parties, implementation of those recommendations has grinded to a halt. The reform process was propelled by the unrest that followed the December 15, 1997 general elections, which led to an escalation of tension and violence. The Herdmanston Accord was subsequently brokered by a Caricom mission, providing for measures that included constitutional reform, which it felt could contribute to a resolution of the existing problems. But implementation of the recommendations has been slow.

Following the 2011 general elections during which the joint opposition – APNU and AFC – gained a majority in the National Assembly, APNU leader David Granger was elected chairman of the parliamentary Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform. The committee in 2012 had agreed to complete the work started on outstanding issues, including bringing into operation the human rights commission and reforming the electoral system but this has not happened.

Granger yesterday declined to comment on the matter and referred all queries on constitutional reform to APNU’s shadow Legal Affairs Minister Basil Williams. Williams could not be contacted by Stabroek News.

Asked to comment on the view that the opposition had not done much in the three years that it has chaired the committee, Roopnaraine, who also sits on the body, responded that “it is not an unfair criticism.” He disclosed that the committee only met twice. On the first occasion it was to elect a chairman and on the second occasion, it was to bring on board two members of civil society which is provided for under the law. These were Haslyn Parris and Dr Harold Lutchman. There were no further meetings.

“Before we could get going, the Parliament was prorogued,” Roopnaraine said. The second meeting of the committee was on July 17, 2012. President Donald Ramotar suspended the National Assembly on November 10, 2014.

Roopnaraine said that there is need for a new process which should end in a completely new Constitution or a complete “radical overhaul” of the present one. “My own view is that we need a new Constitution,” he asserted. He said that the 1980 Constitution has been “contaminated” by the powers granted to the President. The reforms would encompass the presidency, the parliament, the electoral system and independent entities, he said.

General elections are due to be held next year and although the opposition was vocal about the need to reform the electoral system, nothing has been done. Reform of the electoral system was strongly supported by various local and international actors.

The existing electoral system was intended to be re-worked after the 2001 polls, for which it was crafted as a one-time only compromise by contesting parties. The constitution provides for a system of proportional representation that ensures that the proportion of seats in parliament achieved by each party is as close as possible to the proportion of votes it received from the electorate. While this system produces a proportional house, it has been criticised for sacrificing the needed accountability by MPs to the people who voted for them.

The AFC recently laid out its initial proposals for constitutional reform and among its suggestions are that the President must be able to secure a majority of the votes cast and members of Cabinet should only be appointed subject to the approval of the National Assembly. The party had also proposed reducing the immunities of the President.

Granger had said that while he agrees with calls for constitutional reform, the needs of the people should drive the process. The APNU leader said that while much focus seems to be on presidential powers, there are aspects of the current constitution that affect “the people on the ground” daily and as a result it was the masses who needed to be consulted before changes are made.

Business icon Yesu Persaud recently called for reform, especially to the powers of the executive president. He has accused government of disrespecting fundamental human rights and targeting critics and said he hopes constitutional reform would be a priority for a new government.

The GHRA earlier this month urged a civil society-led constitutional reform process. It said it was convinced that “the profound dysfunctionality of Guyanese political life” is directly linked to the current 1980 Constitution, which was written to provide a legal façade for the “virtually imperial powers” the prime minister Forbes Burnham had accumulated.

The group had said that lessons from the past clearly indicate that the reform cannot be left to politicians alone and it called for the establishment of a civil society-led constitutional reform process after elections.

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