On the question of constitutional reform

The crucial issue of constitutional reform (CR) is once again being discussed by several notable commentators and individuals in civil society. Unfortunately, the two main political parties – PPP and PNC – have remained quiet, thereby revealing their preference for the pernicious and tinkered 1980 Burnham Constitution.

The dominant rationale for CR has been to propose some form of executive power sharing between the PNC and PPP, since these are essentially communal parties with communal leaders reflecting their respective ethnically skewed voting base. The communal party that wins the election projects a leader to the national stage. However, the rationale of political patronage means that the distribution of economic resources and career opportunities are largely skewed in the direction of the supporters of the victorious party. Since 2015, for example, we see once more the reversal of career paths – as occurred in the late 1950s, 1964 and 1992 – to the extent that there is only one East Indian Permanent Secretary in the public service.

The civil service has been an old battle ground for political capture so as to reward party supporters, and friends and families of the ruling political class. This practice, of course, makes it virtually impossible to mould the kind of embedded and yet autonomous developmental state that would be even more necessary when the oil revenues start to flow in 2020. When the State’s developmental mandate is greatly expanded in 2020, it will be staffed with many individuals who would be hard-pressed to pass a civil service entry examination as one would have in the case of a meritocratic developmental state. The private sector’s role in growth and development will be smaller as  ExxonMobil sends revenues to the government. I do anticipate, therefore, that a significant proportion of the oil revenues will be wasted given the present political structure and public service.

I understand the argument for a rewritten constitution that promotes cooperation between the PPP and PNC, since these two parties account for about 88% of the electorate.  The economic ethnic security dilemmas – which engender strategic pro-ethnic voting from the late 1950s – were planted by the demographic change in British Guiana by the mid-1800s. These changes were implemented by the Planter administration to create a surplus labour situation that would drive the wage rate towards subsistence. The idea of a subsistence wage would later become fundamental in Sir Arthur Lewis’ celebrated 1954 paper.

Therefore, a new constitution is necessary to circumvent the harmful and wasteful resource allocations that result from strategic pro-ethnic voting. I have outlined the economic rationale for constitutional reform and the underdevelopment trap in a series of Development Watch columns under the title “Politics and Guyana’s underdevelopment” and “Should there be executive power sharing between PPP and PNC?” These ideas were fully fleshed out in three of my academic papers: (i) “Colonial origins of Guyana’s underdevelopment”, (ii) “Political economy of Guyana’s underdevelopment”, and (iii) “Politics and underdevelopment: the case of Guyana”.

A constitution that legalizes cooperation between PPP and PNC comes with the risk of shutting out independents from important decisions. However, I still believe it would lead to a better outcome than what prevails under the present constitution, which incentivises adverse competition and zero-sum policy making.

Under a new power-sharing constitution, we would likely witness a few political families across the divide dominating economic life in Guyana. Indeed, a few members of the present APNU + AFC government saw their land ownership and gold-mining rights expand significantly under the Jagdeo PPP, which saw patronage as the tool for buying political peace and loyalty.

Independent personalities who are able to make careers while competing in the fierce marketplace will be shut out from decision making by the political families under executive power sharing. It would now become legal for political families to reward the party faithful and their friends.

However, a more diverse group of people will share in economic opportunities regardless of the election outcome; hence, there could be improvement over what exists today.

Therefore, at minimum the following principles should be embedded in a power-sharing constitution so that there can be regular democratic turnover from one political family to another. Rules have to be written to make the process of winning an election random instead of certain. These principles, I think, would make the election outcome less certain and enable independent voters to have a greater say in running the country. Overall, I believe this would make a more stable democracy and prosperous society.

  1. The President should be elected by proportional representation.
  2. An upper house of Parliament should be elected directly by constituency. This would help to deplete the harmful influences of the party list system.
  3. A lower house of parliament would see a system where the President is able to pick his/her MPs providing it represents gender, religious and ethnic balance.
  4. The upper house should allow for two elected Diaspora seats. However, this should only last for a 20 year period when it would be reviewed, renewed or scrapped.
  5. There must be a 51% majority to form the government.
  6. Following from number 5, there must only be post-election alliances to minimize the temptation of race baiting.
  7. There must be cooperation between the two main groups over big development projects. Both sides must claim ownership of the project.
  8. Presidential immunity has to go.
  9. MPs and members of government must declare assets before entering Parliament and government, respectively.
  10. Political parties that are popular enough to become parliamentary parties must allow independent outside auditors to oversee and manage their internal election that elects a potential Presidential candidate. The party’s business is not just its own business; it affects national life. Therefore, a political party must be prevented from rigging or manipulating its internal election. It is at this stage where political capture and chicanery emerge. The political tricks are then projected to the national level.
  11. The Guyana Elections Commission must be more independent of the dominant political parties.
  12. Elections must be funded by a pool of taxpayers’ monies. There should be no private donations for campaigning.

I am fully aware that none of these things will get done and that the two main parties do not want a new constitution. However, it is important that we still write down these things.

Comments: tkhemraj@ncf.edu

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