Any move towards constitutional reform cannot work without the government engaging the political opposition, Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran last Friday told a public forum, where he also questioned the administration’s failure to pronounce on the final report handed over by the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) almost one year ago.
Ramkarran, the former Chair of the constitution reform process that was undertaken in the late 90s and early ‘aughts,’ was one of the panelists at a public symposium on constitutional reform that was organised by the Carter Center and supported by the UK High Commission.
The forum sought to explore the various perspectives on the country’s constitutional reform process, while giving members of the public the opportunity to air their concerns and make recommendations.
“They [the government] have to engage their political opposition. The process cannot work without the political opposition,” he said.
Ramkarran pointed out that it was the APNU+AFC government that promised constitutional reform within the first 100 days of entering office.
After highlighting some of the expected changes, he said, “If you agree with me, we can end this debate right now, gather some placards, write these things on them and go in front of the president’s house and ask him what the delay is because he promised this in one hundred days.”
Ramkarran addressed an audience that noticeably lacked the attendance of young people.
Though the forum was held at the University of Guyana’s Turkeyen campus, very few students turned up. Also noticeably absent were members of the government, although several opposition PPP/C members, including parliamentarians, were in attendance.
He reminded that about a year ago the President, in response to a report from the SCCR, restated the need for broad consultations on constitutional reform. He said that that report was sent to Cabinet and that the Prime Minister was put in charge of overseeing the process but thus far “nothing has happened.” And although he pointed out that $80 million were set aside in the budget last year for constitutional reform, he said Cabinet is yet to pronouncement on the report.
With regard to moving the process forward, he expressed belief that the country should learn from the earlier process.
“I believe that we need to work from what happened in 2000… there were 4,000 submissions to the Constitutional Reform Commission in a brief period of six months,” he said, before adding that this resulted in hundreds of recommendations spanning 23 separate areas of the constitution. This, he added, resulted in 10 pieces of legislation that provided the basis for the reforms.
Ramkarran explained that while the two major parties at the time were happy given that the process did not recommend any form of shared governance, others involved in the process were left unfulfilled because they had hoped that a system would be created to encourage the political parties to have a higher degree of engagement across the political divide.
He said he would not recommend a large scale reform process but rather one which focuses on the coalition’s manifesto promise.
Also on the panel were social media researcher and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana Dr Paloma Mohamed, Elections Commissioner Vincent Alexander, attorney Gino Persaud and peacebuilding and governance practitioner Lawrence Lachmansingh, as well as international constitution reform experts Dr Jacqueline Hanoman, Geoffrey Weichselbaum, and Michele Brandt, who took part in the discussion via Skype.
During the three-hour-long seminar, there was a majority agreement that constitutional reform is vital to the progress of the country. However, many questioned what exactly needed to be reformed. And while there were a few suggestions about what needed to be done, the process was not clearly worked out.
Alexander, in his opening comments, explained that constitutional reform was undertaken in late 90s into the early 2000s but was never completed.
He added that there are a number of provisions that were agreed to but were not acted upon and reform is necessary to take the process to its ultimate conclusion.
Noting that a constitution is a contract of the people, Alexander argued that if such a contract does not prescribe to the needs of the society, then it needs to be reformed.
Another problem, he said, is that there are provisions in the constitution which the country does not seem to have the capacity to implement or observe. “It therefore suggests that we have to find mechanisms that will go beyond these parties being able to rival about implementation and I think this becomes another challenge in terms of how our constitution should be formatted,” he said.
Mohamed suggested that the problem which exists in Guyana is really about race. “I have always believed that this is about race. I have always believed that it is about class and that the very race has been used as a vehicle for people to kind of structure the relations in a way that benefits some groups or not,” she said, before adding that she believes consideration should be given to whether we need to deal with what we have and try to make that work and address the “new” things that come up just before and after every election.
Mohamed also suggested that a deeper conversation is needed rather that one exclusively focused on politics.
“We have to consider what the people on the ground do, what they know, how they live, how they experience their lives and what can be done to get those people involved and engaged in the process,” she said.
Persaud, in giving his perspective on the need for constitutional reform, said that the words race and politics jump out at him when he thinks about the topic. He said that all can agree that Guyana is not where it should be in terms of its economic development and the realisation of its potential as a country because “we have had a political failure in government, pre and post-independence.”
Persaud, who is also a member of SCCR, said that all should agree that ethnic politics or race and politics have “retarded the country’s growth over several decades.” He argued that constitutional reform can offer a “partial” solution to some of the serious problems that the country has been faced with. “Any government who is serious about the development of a country should be serious about constitutional reform,” he stressed.
Latchmansingh posited that Guyana is looking for solutions to what appears to be a “systematic problem” in the society.
“Instinctively our people feel that something is not working in the way that we are supposed to be doing business and these tensions that keep rising up at elections time are uncomfortable, they are not consistent sometimes with the way we live between elections,” he said.
A member of the audience, who identified himself as a businessman, noted that the constitution works only for the PPP and the PNC. He took issue with the present structure. The businessman explained that at present there is a proportional representation system imposed by the British and United States just prior to independence. “That system does not allow for individual accountability of any politicians ….and we also have a list system which keeps those politicians in line,” he said.
PPP/C MP Juan Edghill questioned whether constitutional reform can take place without the involvement of “outside forces.” In response, Alexander said that the way outside forces are treated is a matter of convenience. “When it serves our purpose, we want them. When it doesn’t suit our purpose, we don’t want them,” he said to loud applause.
Alexander said the Carter Center, a third force in the discourse, had made it clear that it did not want to dabble in the constitution but wanted to engage in a conversation about the process and that it is the Guyanese people who will have to engage in the substantive conversation.
General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress Lincoln Lewis said that the constitution is not the problem but rather the people who created it. The constitution, he pointed out, makes provisions for an Ethnic Relations Commission. “We tried with it…after the life came to an end, we killed it. The politicians killed it,” he said, before adding that there was to be a Human Rights Commission but one was never appointed. He also made mention of the Public Procurement Commission, which hasn’t been established in keeping with what the constitution says. “If the basic thing that the constitution says they are not being implemented by the politicians. Is the constitution bad?” he asked.
In responding to the concerns expressed, Alexander agreed with Lewis’s position but quickly pointed out that what was said does not negate the fact that the electoral system is flawed and needs work.
Latchmansingh later added that what is needed is a process of behavioural changes and a more human approach to change.
The proceedings at the seminar were cordial, with the exception of occasional verbal clashes between members of the audience and the moderator, Severin Wilson, who heads of the Carter Center’s constitutional reform project.