The issue of constitutional reforms to address the issue of ethnic security has a long history dating back over half a century. In October 1962, the then British Guiana Independence Conference met in London for the purpose of settling the form of an independence constitution and the fixing of a date for independence. The conference was attended by representatives from the three parties represented in the Legislative Assembly, namely the PPP, PNC and the United Force (UF). The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr Duncan Sandys presided.
Despite exhaustive discussions, the parties failed to reach agreement on a number of major issues, the most important of which were:
- Should the elections be contested on the basis of single member constituencies as was done in all previous elections or on the basis of proportional representation?
- Should fresh elections be held before independence?
- Should the right to vote be retained at age 21 or at age 18 as advocated by the PPP?
After the parties failed to reach agreement on the above issues, a decision was taken by way of a signed letter from the leaders of the three parties to request the British government to settle, on their authority, all outstanding constitutional issues which the parties undertook to accept.
After further meetings with the leaders of the three parties, Mr Sandys announced that he was satisfied that the root cause of British Guiana’s troubles was the development of party politics along racial lines and he had therefore decided that the system of proportional representation should be introduced which he felt would encourage coalitions between parties and would make it easier for new political groupings to form on a multi-racial basis.
Mr Sandys was proven correct on one count, and that was the formation of a coalition government between the PNC and the UF in the elections of 1964. On the issue of multi-racial politics he was way off the mark as the UF was kicked out of the coalition a mere four years later while the PNC took full control of the electoral machinery and rigged its way to power for 24 years until the Carter Center and other Western nations intervened to restore democracy to the country on October 5, 1992.
The Carter Center with support from the British government, UNDP and civil society is playing a useful facilitating role in the constitutional reform process, but for it to be successful such a process must be driven by the Guyanese people both individually and through their elected representatives, and not by the executive as seems to be the case.
Such reforms, I submit, must have as their overarching objective the consolidation and deepening of the democratic fabric of the society, while at the same time providing the necessary safeguards to protect minorities and institutionalize good and accountable governance.