There is need for a new constitution

Dear Editor,

Mr Lincoln Lewis believes that critics of the Guyana Constitution have not read the document and implies that my objection to the Constitution stems from hatred of Forbes Burnham (SN, September 27). First, let me say categorically that I do not hate Burnham. I have said on numerous occasions that some of the core principles that motivated Burnham’s economic agenda are still relevant. These include state banking and industrial policies built on processing local content. As an aside, the early Cheddi Jagan of the 1950s and ʼ60s also understood the importance of industrial policies, for which the Kaldor Budget was meant to establish the initial conditions.  I also believe a National Service is needed and I felt robbed of the opportunity since it was abandoned by the time I went to UG. However, I would be hard-pressed to say Burnham’s net contribution was positive. History and the economy by 1985 document a net failure. The task of those living in Guyana is to study what went wrong with several of the progressive policies of Burnham.

I do not reject the present tinkered 1980 Burnham constitution on the basis of Article 160 alone, as Mr Lewis asserts. I was merely reiterating a point raised by Mr Campbell in his letter which points out a serious weakness of the list system that is enshrined in said article. I have read the Guyana Constitution and I must say the document has critical loopholes and it is written in a manner that gives anyone with the financial means to pay legal minds the upper hand against the working class. Here are some fun facts: the Guyana Constitution is spread across 376 standard pages (8.5 by 11 inches) and has 232 articles plus numerous sub-articles. To put things into perspective, the world’s superpower and largest economy – the United States – has a constitution with seven articles, which are written across 43 pages in a booklet of 8 by 4 inches page size.

Moreover, it is impossible to do a serious political-economic analysis of 232 articles in a single letter. I do intend to write an economic analysis of the Guyana Constitution. However, I can only to these things on a part-time basis, since it is not possible for me to live in Guyana at this point. Guyana has not been good to me. In the heat of the post-1992 ethnic conflicts, the Agricola boys firebombed my home (myself and family sleeping) days after the 2001 general election and I was on a Jagdeo-Rohee PPP surveillance list. I want to believe I am still under watch by the Granger-Ramjattan security regime since I was stopped at the airport the last time I exited Guyana in 2016, as well as July 2015.

The most important reason why I object to the present constitution is because it is not suitable for a country characterized by bi-communal ethnic polarization. In general, most Guyanese get along well at the individual level. However, at the group level most people vote strategically on the day of secret ballot. They mainly vote to keep the other ethnic group out from power because there are economic opportunities: jobs, land rights, mining rights, scholarships, etc, at stake. I have argued in ‘Development Watch’ and in academic works that economic capture starts with capturing the political party by selecting malleable members of parliament. This constitution provides an ideal incentive for bad governance and economic capture – the party list. Voters do not vote for a local representative who rises to the national level, but for a general list selected by the presidential candidate and a handful of powerful people in each of Guyana’s cult-like historical parties.

Addressing this pernicious situation would require a new Constitution, which promotes some form of power sharing, as was argued for over the years by several notable personalities such as James McAllister and Sherwood Lowe from the PNC and David Hinds, Ravi Dev, Henry Jeffrey, Baytoram Ramharack and others. I am sympathetic to power sharing, but I would enhance it with a new Constitution that provides for credible electoral challenges by independent voters to the ethnic incumbents sharing power. The incumbents of a power-sharing government will only be motivated to govern for the greater good if a creditable electoral challenge from the outside can be mounted.

The present constitution makes it extremely hard for independent political forces, while allowing for the entrenchment of the two old ethnic parties. The latter was emphasized clearly by Wil Campbell, Nadia Sagar and others from RISE. They showed the tacit (perhaps explicit) collusion between the PPP and PNC to prevent constituency voting for members of parliament and the president (SN, September 27). Furthermore, the constituency voting at the local government election – which is provided by the present constitution – is no substitute for the kind of constituency voting for which I have called and RISE has proposed.

In his above-mentioned letter, Mr Lewis notes “nothing prevents the parties from putting in place a system that would ensure a list reflecting the will of the people…” This was his response to my objection to the problematic list system. History has shown that the party’s interests become paramount to the national good. No president, except Desmond Hoyte, in Guyana’s history has been able to tame party interests for the greater good. Mr Hoyte, of course, would eventually vitiate much of his good name by his actions in opposition – some understandable – that laid the condition for the ethnic warfare from the days of street protests to 2006. There is no empirical evidence from Guyanese history that supports Mr Lewis’s optimism. But more importantly the present constitution incentivizes government for party interests over national ones.

When time permits, I would do an economic analysis of the Constitution. Some themes involve adverse incentives, fallacy of composition, political-economic capture, incomplete information, competitive voting and others. These are all themes which I believe the Constitution does not adequately address; hence, there is need for a new one.

Yours faithfully,

Tarron Khemraj