Many people are sweating over the impending “constitutional crisis” on March 19. My view is that there is already a constitutional crisis—the two political titans are interpreting the constitution differently. Since constitutions by their very nature are not as explicit as other documents, this disagreement is to be expected. That is where judicial review comes in—the judicial branch of government is expected to break the deadlock. But invariably, the courts come down on one side of the argument. Because the executive is a co-equal branch of government, it has some scope to get around the verdict of the courts. In other words, despite the rhetoric about constitutional rule and the rule of law, ultimately those cannot make much sense outside of the larger political and historical contexts.
My problem with the PPP and the commentators who are holding the government to constitutional standards is that they are presenting their case as if the government’s non-adherence to the dictates of the constitution is the sum-total of the problem we face. Any honest overview of our modern political history would show that we have been in a permanent state of “constitutional crisis” since 1953 simply because there has been a dissonance between our constitutional declarations and our political praxis.
Burnham solved the problem by installing paramountcy of the party over the courts and the constitution which ultimately led to a full-blown authoritarian order that survives to this day. Since the return to so-called free and fair elections we have witnessed at least three other big manifestations of “constitutional crises”—1990-92, 1997-2001 and 2011-2015. The current one is simply the latest manifestation. The common thread running through all these crises is that they are all grounded in the ethno-political realities of our country and they all were temporally resolved by political agreements by the two parties under the overt or covert supervision of external forces. Another constant of these crises is that they have all been accompanied by the real threat of ethnic violence with the 1997 crisis leading to actual ethnic violence that lasted for a decade.
Those of us who study race, ethnicity and politics know that few people and organizations characterize their actions in ethno-racial terms—they find other explanations for even the most overt racial actions. The PPP, for example, love to regale us with the argument that Indian Guyanese support and vote for them not because of race but because they are a working-class party. Or African Guyanese would tell us that they support the crudest form of governance by the PNC not because of race but because they fear the evil PPP.
I am therefore arguing that what we are calling a constitutional crisis is really a deep political crisis laden with ethno-political implications. It does not take a scholar to tell us that the majority of African Guyanese of all persuasions and affiliations feel that the constitution is stacked against them. So, every time they read the arguments by the PPP and the constitutionalists, they rally more around their standard bearers. And Indian Guyanese for the most part cannot be faulted for feeling that the constitution is on their side and that those who disobey the constitution are unfit to govern.
Our ethnic divide has always been a potent factor in our existence. In the run-up to independence the defining question was: who governs a free Guyana? With the return to free elections the defining question was: who governs a democratic Guyana? In the current dispensation the defining question is who governs an oil rich Guyana? So come March 19, the ethno-political Cold War could become a Hot War if the leaderships of the two major parties do not find a solution that both ethnic groups could simultaneously see as a win.
There is another attendant crisis—the crisis of ideas that could lead to a creative solution. Apart from Shared governance which was introduced by Eusi Kwayana and the African Society for Racial Equality in 1961, we have not come up with anything new. What does that say about our country that when it comes to the defining problem we face, in six decades we have not generated any new ideas or actualized the one old one? One WPA Elder and I recently attempted to think about a few other Guyanese with whom we can talk about a solution that goes beyond the obvious. After two days of brainstorming we could only identify two others—a former WPA firebrand and a newer WPA-ish type.