Actually separating political power

‘Government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another.’

Charles-Louis Baron de Montesquieu

I can say without fear of contradiction that the vast majority of us would accept the above as a useful general rule. Yet, for most of seven decades, we have consistently indulged in the opposite, largely because of an overreliance on tradition to guide our enterprises.  True, we need to change the current semi-presidential system, which has placed the heads of ethnic political parties in control of both law-making and the executive for long periods, giving to the incumbents massive leverage over those who adjudicate. But I am usually astonished when some of the fiercest critics of this caustic relationship support reversion to our pre-independence Westminster-type system – which birthed this incestuous relationship – for salvation. None other than Lord Hailsham, a former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom, declared the British system of government, the mother of all Westminster-type parliamentary systems, an ‘electoral dictatorship’. Indeed, I venture to say that had it not been for the conventions, acquired gradually after much bloodshed over centuries, which underpin its architecture, the present arrangement would not work even in the United Kingdom.

However, I referred to Montesquieu not mainly to question our previous efforts but because, mistaken as he was at the practical level in his praise for the newly established constitutional monarchial system in the United Kingdom, at the conceptual level he did deduce the ‘separation of powers’ as a central ingredient of good governance. Many have suggested that in the UK ‘the obvious solution is … reforming the role of the Prime Minister so that he is not part of both the legislature and executive. Other solutions are having a coalition government, thus one party can stop a potential act of tyranny from another. (Although in theory it would still be elective dictatorship, it is potentially a safer one) Or, to have a government with a small majority or no majority at all’ ( php?t=2700556).

A political arrangement is a system and thus it is not possible to have absolute separation among its parts, but bearing in mind our own peculiarities alluded to above, I believe that as far as it is possible, our condition requires a political system with the strongest possible separation of powers. We cannot do politics without political parties and where these are centralised and managed by entrenched oligarchies such as exist in all the major political parties in Guyana, they present an important obstacle to any effort to disentangle the legislature from the executive. That said, two weeks ago, I proposed a system that would make it impossible for one party to become tyrannical by suggesting an extensive executive coalition. Last week, I attempted, even in our highly ethnicised political society, to make MPs more independent and responsible to their constituencies. Today the effort is to separate and strengthen the legislature even within these more placid constitutional arrangements.

The Proposal

There shall be a parliament of 65 voting members elected on a transferable proportional system and members of the executive/government shall not be members of the legislature/National Assembly.

The National Assembly will have commissions/committees much as it now has with the authority to interrogate and investigate the working of the various ministries and the behaviour of their officials. Except for the chairpersons of the financial/budget, and constitutional reform committees, who shall be chosen by the smallest party in parliament, membership and chairpersonship of the committees will be rotated and distributed as agreed upon among the parties according to their proportional representation in the Assembly. Additionally, the National Assembly, through its committees, will have the authority to confirm the persons chosen as ministers by way of consensus or a special majority that is 10% more than the parties who chose them have in the Assembly.

Beginning with the nominee of the majority party, there shall be an annually rotated (among all parties in the Assembly) Speaker and Deputy Speaker (from a different party) of the National Assembly. As today, the Speaker will be expected to behave as if s/he is above party politics.

There shall be a National Assembly budget office with which the government will collaborate before presenting its annual budget to the Assembly. The budget is to be passed by consensus or  where necessary with a special majority that is 10% more votes than that of the majority party. Remember that the budget committee shall be chaired by the smallest party in the Assembly. Through this committee, the government shall provide the National Assembly with half-yearly financial reports.

There shall be a constitutional reform committee which shall be chaired by the smallest party in the Assembly and meet at least once every three months. Decisions will be made by consensus or where necessary a special majority of 10% more votes than that of the majority party.  Having reported to the Assembly, the chairperson of the committee will report to the nation and hold a press conference within two months of the report being laid in the Assembly.

There shall be a national stakeholders advisory committee consisting of MPs from all the parliamentary parties and representatives from the private sector, unions and civil society with an agreed upon rotating chairperson (from among the MPs). This committee shall have access to the entire national assembly or such of its committees once every three months or at such other times as agreed upon. It shall have a small secretariat funded by the state and publish an annual review.

Important comments

To stay close to historical precedents and further help to weaken party control over the executive, the appointment of ministers should be the constitutional responsibility of the parties’ nominees in the presidency rather than the wider party, as this will make it more likely that non-political/party people will be chosen. Governments change every five years and in the interim a national stakeholders advisory committee can provide useful inputs of a non-opportunistic political nature into the process of managing the state. After the regressive court decision that attempted to curtail the responsibility of the people’s elected representatives to properly interrogate and adjust the national budget, I think it best to constitutionalise an arrangement that gives them both the legal authority and wherewithal to do a thorough job.

One means of strengthening the authority of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the government and the parties is to have full time, reasonably well remunerated committee chairpersons who have been elected as MPs in their own name and can only be removed by way of a constituency referendum. Given their constituency interest discussed last week, the government will not easily have its way:  as one person observed ‘pork barrel (MPs fight for projects that will benefit their constituencies) will kick just’, thus energizing the political process in the local communities. In our highly centralised political system an element of this is badly needed.


I have stated above what appears to me the main innovations that are necessary to establish a more robust separation of powers that will gradually strengthen the power of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the executive and the political parties. In consensus orientated constitution-making, the use of special majorities is usual and more attention should be given to the general orientation of these interventions than to their actual formulation or the stated percentages. The chairpersons of the two most important committees are given to the smallest party largely because it may well not be a part of the government and in any event, wanting to improve its electoral standing, it is more likely to be disruptive of the status quo. Hopefully, these relatively novel ways of conceptualising  political life will force us to reflect upon what was previously reflexive behaviour and lead to more progressive ways of our doing politics.


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