AFC says constitution reform still priority

-though no progress over three years

Khemraj Ramjattan

Stressing that constitutional reform was still a major priority of the Alliance for Change (AFC) even though three years have elapsed without progress,   Chairman Khemraj Ramjattan said that he was optimistic that the process can be completed before the 2020 Regional and General Elections.

“I think it could be done before the next elections,” Ramjattan told a press conference yesterday.

He further explained that for that to be achieved, “I suppose, then, that we’d have to fast track it from now on”.

While admitting that there has been a delay in getting the process started since a bipartisan Constitutional Reform Committee was established last year following the tabling of Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill, Ramjattan said that there were “good reasons” for the delays.

“As you would appreciate they’re good reasons why. There are other matters before parliament we haven’t been meeting as regularly, for good reasons again, and that has stalled the process somewhat,” he posited.

“But as we had indicated in a prior press conference, we are going to ensure the passage of that Consultation Bill and so that the process of constitutional reform can start by the Commission then going to the various places across the country.  I think it could be done before the next elections. You do not necessarily have to have a thousand visits all across the country. People, if they are interested in constitutional reform, can send in their proposed amendments,” Ramjattan added.

Although there were six of the AFC’s parliamentarians present at yesterday’s press conference, none would say if the party has or will secure a formal or informal commitment from its governing coalition partner, APNU on whether it would support an amendment to provide for post-election coalitions.

As Guyana’s constitution only allows for party mergers pre elections, AFC’s supporters have voiced to the party that it should negotiate for post-election coalitions and have it as an amendment in the constitutional reform process.

The AFC and the coalition APNU+AFC government have been criticized for moving slowly on constitutional reform. There have been calls for the process to be completed before first oil in 2020 as it can stave off or protect against conflicts and the dreaded oil resource curse. Transparency Institute of Guyana and the 2017 activist group RISE have all been calling for the process to be started.

Even the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a member of APNU, has  expressed dissatisfaction at the  government’s failure to honour its manifesto promise of constitutional reform.

“We fought for the inclusion of Constitutional Reform as a very important and central plank of this (the APNU+AFC) manifesto. We are not satisfied that the government has moved purposefully in terms of dealing with Constitutional Reform”, Executive David Hinds had emphasized last year at a party press conference.

Before agreeing to coalesce with APNU, the AFC had campaigned heavily on having constitutional reform and said when it entered the coalition back in 2015, it would continue to press for the process. In their group’s joint manifesto, the APNU+AFC said that within three months of taking office it would agree to some key terms.

In that manifesto, the party said that it would appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people, which among other things, would reduce the powers of the president but to date this has not happened.

Instead, it appointed the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) in September 2015. The SCCR submitted a report to the government on April 30, 2016. This report was not released to the public though it was reported on by this newspaper.

The body recommended a three-tiered reform system where a group of legal experts on the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) would prepare a draft document encompassing some of the SCCR’s recommendations. This would then be distributed to stakeholders, including representatives of political parties and civil society.

The CRC would then be expanded to include representatives of political parties and civil society, after which, it would deliberate on submissions received and prepare a report which is to be perfected by its legal experts. This report would then be taken to the National Assembly for debate, following which, a referendum or some other method would be employed for the prospective adopting of the recommendations.

‘No Boardroom’

The setup of the body did not seem to sit well with President David Granger who said he wanted a process that was inclusionary of the ordinary man and would gather ideas from around the country.

“I don’t want boardroom constitutional reform. I want a public discussion. I want people in their communities to meet and express their views. I don’t want a group of people sitting in a room saying what must be done,” Granger last year said.

Ramjattan pointed out yesterday that while he, too, advocates countrywide consultations, that process can mean persons also corresponding their positions through various mediums.

“I am hopeful that we can be finished before the elections …I rather suspect that the opposition is going to support the constitution bill and after that the process can be fast tracked to comprise members of the commission because we don’t want a constitutional reform process that doesn’t involve people from all across the country. We will have to hear them on these issues,” he said.

“We have our views and APNU has its views and we hope that they will coincide and so will the People’s Progressive Party but constitutional reform means consulting…consulting the human rights association, consulting farmers and so many other people and get them to have a say and I am certain they too will see the benefits of the proposed amendments that we have and we can get some of their ideas and see some of them be implemented too.. That process can be fast-tracked by virtue of what they have to say in written form and so on. That process we know …can be fast tracked. We doesn’t necessarily have to get a 1000 visits, people, if they are interested in constitutional reform can send in their recommendations,” he added.

But although there will be a bilateral meeting of the AFC and APNU next week, Local Government Elections will top that agenda.

“It is no secret, we issued a press statement saying we, like you, are disappointed it has not moved as fast as we wanted. It is one of the nine points that was contained in a letter… which we said we wanted to discuss, in earnest, with our colleagues in the APNU. We recognize that we can do better,” AFC Executive David Patterson, who will lead a three-member team of the AFC on the talks, stated yesterday.

“It is part but it’s a prioritized list…Yes but there is a prioritized list of items which we are discussing and it’s no secret that the local government elections is high on it because that is the most immediate… We recognize it is one of the issues we have to talk about, inter-party wise to see that we can clear before the national assembly,” he added.

The opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) is “open” to constitutional reform once it is locally-driven and transparent.

“The process of constitutional reform was always seen as one that would be continuous, an intention that was enshrined in Article 119 (A) of the Constitution. The PPP/C, therefore, remains open to the process of constitutional reform – a process that is locally driven and one that will see the involvement of the widest possible cross-section of stakeholders, including collaboration from international bodies,” Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo said last September.

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