Holding back the tide?

One would have thought that the PPP had done enough damage to itself over the past few months to give it genuine cause for hesitation the next time it was overtaken by the compulsion to inflict self-harm. But no, there it was yet again last week shooting itself twice in the foot with its customary bravado.

The party held forth on two matters, the irony being that in one case it drew attention to an event which otherwise might have slid by, if not quite unremarked, at least without creating all that much of a ripple in its wake. As it was, however, the Office of the President and by extension, Freedom House, afforded Dr Philip Mozart Thomas’s civil society encounter free publicity, and by trying to warn people away from it, probably achieved the opposite result.

On Tuesday evening, the Office of the President, clearly in didactic mode, urged the public to distance themselves from the Guyana National Civil Society Summit which had been organized by Dr Thomas, and which it described as a “farcical event.” In characteristic fashion, the OP then went on to attack the organizer, whom it described as a “shady character” with “questionable international connections,” and whose qualifications were “highly suspicious.” These ad hominem remarks were crowned by a more familiar denunciation, namely that the organizer had associations with the PNC and APNU. (It might be observed that only in Guyana can one by definition be condemned for being associated with a parliamentary political party.)

In the first place, it doesn’t matter who Dr Thomas is or is not; if he wants to organize a summit about our political situation to which civil society is invited, then that is his right, and it is not for the government to say otherwise. Neither is it for government to say that members of civil society, however defined, should boycott the event; in what is supposed to be a democracy no one, least of all the government and the ruling party, should be trying to stop them if they want to participate. As it is, Freedom House appears to be confusing freedom of speech with speaking with one voice – its voice.

In any case, if, as OP claimed, the ‘summit’ was farcical, they had no need to say anything; the Guyanese public is not so naïve that it would not have found that out soon enough and responded accordingly. Then the government could have sat back and watched a bit of theatre which would eventually have petered out or even self-destructed. But no, by speaking out it provides evidence once more of its autocratic credentials, and arouses everyone’s interest about what exactly is spooking it.

And what was spooking it, seemingly, was the expectation of constitutional discussions by groups over which it exercised no control. Its bottom line has now become no constitutional change, and since the air recently has been full of vague conversation and commentary about the necessity for amending the constitution, considerable unease is being felt in Robb Street.

In case anyone doubted that Freedom House harboured an unwavering aversion to constitutional reform, there was PPP General Secretary Clement Rohee coming forward to disabuse them of the notion. Last Monday he treated the public to one of his classic harangues. “Constitutions are not to be tampered with, ransacked or subjected to open heart surgery whimsically or maliciously, because of political disagreement on issues of governance or the powers of a head of state,” he was quoted as declaiming with some energy to the media at his press conference.

On Wednesday we reported him as saying that some constitutions were over 100 years old, and Guyana’s current reformed constitution was only 13 years old. Where constitutions are concerned, age, of course, means nothing; they are usually works in progress, like the US Constitution where 33 amendments have been adopted by Congress, 27 of which have become part of the constitution after being ratified by the States. Constitutions, among other things, are the frameworks within which political activity takes place, and as societies change, or as experience identifies omissions or articles which are no longer appropriate, those frameworks are adjusted or even ditched altogether. The age of a constitution simply does not come into it.

Perhaps France is the best example in Europe of a nation which has had a considerable number of constitutions since the French Revolution. The current one, which dates from October 1958 appears the most stable – and even that has been amended quite number of times – but some of them were in existence only very briefly. As the nature of the society and its political structures underwent modification or transformation, the various constitutions had to be rewritten, some of them partly over the question of the powers of the head of state as well as governance in its larger sense.

Equally, it doesn’t matter if the people wrote the constitution or were consulted on it, or whether it was crafted by a special committee, parliamentary or otherwise; the question to be asked is whether it meets the nation’s needs. If our constitution is flawed, then it should be reformed. To do so in our context would not be a slap in the face of Guyanese; it would be to show them respect. It would be to say that the parliamentary parties have their best interests at heart and are constantly working to try and create the conditions whereby their rights are recognized, and the complexity of our political situation accommodated as far as that is possible.

The slap in the face of Guyanese and their representatives would come about if the ruling party were not prepared to entertain constitutional discussions and possible reform. The new situation which has come about as a consequence of a minority government has revealed with some clarity several of the problems of the current constitution and as said above, if the PPP is not even prepared to discuss these, it invites only one conclusion. One suspects that far from being confident about being returned with an overall majority in what one presumes will be a general election in 2015, the PPP believes it may not do better than a plurality. As a consequence it does not want any arrangements to be introduced which might diminish the powers it currently exercises. In other words, this is about having a framework which would allow it to retain as much power as possible.

Freedom House may believe it can hold back the tide of constitutional reform, but it will not be able to do so indefinitely. Since 2011, circumstances began to overtake it, and that process will continue. History cannot be hurried, but already the trends are there for all to see.

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