RISE plugs constituency voting at constitution reform forum

Newly-formed civil society group RISE Guyana and other speakers at a University of Guyana forum on Thursday called for a return to constituency voting at general elections and there were also appeals for broad consultations on the reform of the constitution.

Represented by businessman Terrence Campbell, Reform, Inspire, Sustain and Educate (RISE) argued that while the 1999 Constitution Reform Commission accomplished much, it “erred when it recommended that the electoral system should remain that of proportional representation.”  Some constituency voting was introduced for the local government system used for elections held last year.

Campbell told the gathering at the 9th Turkeyen and Tain Talks at the Pegasus Hotel that RISE has had discussions with the man-in-the-street, members of the government, the opposition and Guyanese in the Diaspora which “revealed an overwhelming preference for a return to a constituency-based system.”

According to Campbell, such a system would improve accountability and independence since Members of Parliament will need to focus first on representing their constituents rather than serving a political party and party leader.

Citing another recommendation from the 1999 Commission, Campbell asked why the involvement of individuals was proposed at the local but not at the national level.

“A repeal of the List System and post-election coalitions should all be connected with a return to a constituency system,” he stressed

He further argued for a restructuring of the Constitutional Court so that the hearings of constitutional matters can be expedited.

Reminding that an election petition filed in February 1997 was not determined until January, 2001 and that others filed by the AFC in 2006 and the PPP in 2015 slowly made their way through the system, Campbell contrasted this situation with Kenya’s Constitutional Court which took just about three weeks to hear and overturn the 2017 presidential election in that country.

He called for a Constitutional Court made up of at least five judges, including a minimum of two Appellate judges. The quorum for this Court would be three judges and appeals would go directly to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

According to Campbell, a Constitutional Court structured in this manner would minimise accusations of bias that persist since all constitutional matters are heard by the Chief Justice sitting alone.

Another area for reform identified was the appointment of senior public service and judicial personnel.

The argument is that candidates for the offices of Chancellor of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice, the Commissioner of Police, the Chief of Staff of the GDF, the Ombudsman, the Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission, the Auditor General, Director of Public Prosecutions and all other senior constitutional office holders should have parliamentary confirmation hearings.

According to Campbell, such appointments should require parliamentary confirmation with a two-thirds majority and the President’s power to make acting appointments should be removed.

He argued that a similar broad-based appointment procedure is responsible for the respect enjoyed by the German Constitutional Court.

Directly

Additional suggested reforms included the public right to propose legislation directly to the National Assembly and a removal of the restriction on those holding dual citizenship running for seats in the National Assembly.

RISE recommended that legislation proposed by members of the public should be accompanied by a petition signed by at least 20,000 qualified electors, while citizens resident in Guyana for at least three years prior to the election should be eligible for seats even if they have dual citizenship.

A repeal of the article regulating Technocrat Ministers is another area of reform proposed since, according to RISE, it “restricts the President’s ability to involve competent persons from civil society in the process of governance.”

Currently, Article 103(3) gives effect to the 1999 Commission recommendations on the number of Technocrat Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. No more than four Ministers and two Parliamentary Secretaries are provided for.

The group has also taken aim at presidential immunities, campaign financing and a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

It was argued that whilst the immunities of the President were reduced based on the recommendations of the 1999 Commission, they should be reduced further so that the President becomes clearly answerable for acts personal and official once he demits office.

Noting that the political system in Guyana favours the established parties, RISE argued that the ability of governing parties to hand out contracts and to co-opt the resources of the state generally gives them an overall advantage. RISE has asked that at the minimum all donations above a certain threshold must be disclosed, donations from foreign citizens and businesses should be illegal and independent audits of the records of all individuals, political parties and political action committees participating in national elections should be mandatory.

“Violations should result in the forfeiture of seats and imprisonment,” Campbell stated, before calling for details regarding the proportion of oil revenues that will be assigned to the Sovereign Wealth Fund, the type of investments that can be made both in terms of risk and ethics and the criteria for withdrawal to be entrenched in the Constitution.

Reflect

Campbell was one of eight speakers. The others were Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman, former Attorney General Anil Nandlall, Chair of the Women and Gender Equality Commission Indra Chandarpal, Rosemary Benjamin-Noble of the Rights of the Child Commission, Shameza David of the Guyana National Youth Council, Jean La Rose of the Amerindian People’s Association and elections commissioner Vincent Alexander.

The majority of the speakers expressed the view that any process of constitutional reform must reflect a clear mandate of the people of Guyana even as they noted that any reform process will not address the current failures to adhere to constitutional provisions. The talk sought to address the issue of Constitutional Reform and asked its panelists whether Guyana should “court brave change or leave well enough alone?”

Alexander noted that since Guyana’s constitution is its people’s contract, it should reflect the people’s will.

In his seven-minute presentation, he reminded that the process of reform itself must reflect the principles of good governance by being inclusive, open, equitable and transparent. Those involved in the process, he argued, must first seek national consensus on a renewed approach for constitutional reform and engage in a process that is research-based and consultative.

Speaking directly to areas of the constitution that might require revamping, Alexander noted that the ways in which decision-making bodies are established could allow the electorate greater latitude to decide their composition while measures to ensure constitutional provisions are honoured should also be included.

Chandarpal also stressed that any attempt to change the constitution must be done against the background that the process must be as broad-based like the 1998-2001 reform process and must involve countrywide consultations.

She also suggested that the Elections Law (Amendment) Act of 2001, which provides for one third of electoral candidates to be female, be included in the constitution as well as Sustainable Development Goal Number 5. This goal calls for states to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

La Rose spoke to the failure of the constitution to acknowledge the importance of land to the country’s Indigenous peoples.

“It is our home, our pharmacy, our supermarket. It is really important and this is not articulated in the constitution,” she stressed before also calling for the meaningful involvement of Indigenous people in the reform process.

Also calling for inclusion was the youth representative Shameza David. David noted that the reality of young people in Guyana does not reflect the reality of the preamble of the constitution, which directs that their rights must be protected and their potential recognised.

She stressed that in this case it is not the constitution which has failed but its execution.

She further called for cancellation of the list system by which legislative representatives are identified, while arguing that a constituency-based first-past-the-post system would foster greater accountability on the part of parliamentarians.

“We don’t know who our representatives are,” she stressed.

The Turkeyen-Tain talks is a bi-monthly thought forum to facilitate informed and respectful discourse on matters of public interest.

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