There has to be a completely new constitution

Dear Editor,

Please allow me to respond to Mr Lincoln Lewis’ letter in SN , Sepember 24 in which he argues the presenters at the recent constitutional symposium at University of Guyana, Tain, should first understand the 1980 Burnham Constitution before trying to critique it or ask for its reform. He cited Article 160 when responding to Mr Terrence Campbell of Reform, Inspire, Sustain and Educate (RISE). Mr Campbell had indicated some clear weaknesses of the electoral system.

I don’t believe Guyana needs mere constitutional reform. Instead, I believe there has to be a completely new Constitution. This is not because the document does not provide the rights of individuals as it relates to ethnicity, religion or gender. The Constitution is quite clear on these rights.

The problem, however, is these individual rights are trumped by group interests because the Constitution presents loopholes for party-based political (or oligarchic) capture of the state, jobs and resource rights. For example, Article 160 is deficient in one important aspect: the primacy of the party list system and the power it presents to the presidential candidate in selecting like-minded people on the list and therefore the members of parliament. I have raised this point on numerous occasions in my Development Watch columns and in my peer-reviewed academic works. Therefore, I will not repeat these arguments here.

There is no perfect constitution or political system. The degree of perfection of these should be viewed on a spectrum. However, it is crucial for Guyanese to create systems that minimize the opportunities for group interests to undermine individual rights as was done under the party paramountcy of the PNC and elected oligarchy of the PPP. This 1980 Burnham Constitution fails in this regard. It delivers too much power to the president and presents enough loopholes for the winning political party to dominate economic and social life.

Through pre-election alliance, which the constitution promotes, it allows enough ambiguity for the use of ethnic signalling that accuses independent politicians of selling out their respective kith and kin. Both the PPP and PNC have done it in 2011 and 2015. It was more obvious and centralized in the PPP’s actions at Babu Jaan. The PNC’s ethnic mobilizations were more subtle and decentralized. The requirement of pre-election alliance was deliberately inserted to entrench the PPP-PNC ethnic political duopoly by allowing them to accuse others of selling out.

Editor, as a member of the diaspora, I am not trying to impose my views on Guyanese. I know that newspaper columnists (except Stabroek News), politicians, and the woman/man in the street despise us. However, if I am allowed to make a suggestion, I would encourage RISE and others not to treat constitutional reform as a legalistic exercise in tinkering around the edges. The lawyers should only get involved in drafting after the problem solvers – the farmers, engineers, economists, scientists, mathematicians, accountants, teachers, police officers, soldiers, medical professionals, and in general the quantitatively inclined – have outlined a clear set of core principles that should involve minimizing the power of group interests, rooted in the duopolistic party structure, over individual rights.

The tinkered 1980 Burnham Constitution can be case study of the fallacy of composition, in which the sum of the individual rights provided under the Constitution do not equal the social or aggregate rights. This has had devastating impact on Guyana’s economic development since 1970.

Sorry if anyone thinks I am lecturing them. I am not.

Yours faithfully,

Tarron Khemraj