Last week, Sunday columnist Ralph Ramkarran under the caption ‘Still time for constitutional reform’ put forward the view that the AFC was in a position to ensure that the coalition’s manifesto promise on constitutional reform was realized. He acknowledged that it had suffered serious setbacks in relation to APNU, but considered that it still had “clout”, and that it should exercise that clout. Its ministers should, he argued, leave the government and sit on the back benches, and its continuing support should be contingent on constitutional reform.
“The AFC has nothing to lose,” he contended, since it was condemned “to remain an appendage to APNU exercising little or no independent influence.” The last-named party was in no doubt that the AFC was so weakened, he went on to say, that it thought its partner could safely be discarded for the local government elections.
And what would redeem the AFC? Mr Ramkarran had this in response: “The only course likely to sustain the AFC as a respected, if not viable political force, is to secure constitutional reform for the Guyanese people. In addition, history will recognise this service to the Guyanese people. Its failure to do so will be held to be its failure to the Guyanese people.”
Where his second point is concerned, one can only remark that the neither the AFC party, nor its parliamentary members have ever given their constituency or anyone else, for that matter, the impression that they are imbued with a sense of history, and would like to inscribe the AFC name in the annals of our past as having cut the Gordian knot. In contrast, one suspects from their actions that some of their ministers in the current circumstances have less noble objectives for occupying the local political space, unconnected to the party’s potential historical legacy.
Leaving aside the fact that AFC ministers do not appear to have challenged their APNU counterparts when they awarded themselves the infamous pay rise after first coming into office, or that they have failed to challenge their coalition partner on any significant issue, more especially one of principle, it has to be said that some of them, at least, appear to enjoy the exercise of power. In other words, power and its associated perks have proved as seductive for the AFC as it has for the two entrenched parties.
Take Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, for example: Given his transfer out of his traditional party and the fact he is of a generation which will prevent him from reversing course, he has reached the apotheosis of his political career. He will never be president, and he is prime minister within the context of the AFC and courtesy of APNU. It is hard to imagine him – not to mention some of his fellow ministers from his party – casting themselves in a rare political drama, and
vacating their chairs in the cabinet room and installing themselves on the back benches. This would be especially so in a case where a matter of principle was involved whose only reward might be kudos in the history books.
This is not to say that AFC members of government have not had something to say on the matter. Leader of the party, Raphael Trotman in answer to a question was reported as remarking in April this year that the Constitution Reform Consultative Commission was still a priority for the AFC. The following month Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan echoed the sentiment about constitutional reform being a priority for the party – a major one, was his description – also commenting that he thought the reform process could be completed before the next general election. All this is fine; it is just that opinion and action are not in tandem.
Prime Minister Nagamootoo has also spoken in support of constitution reform education during a presentation at the University of Guyana, but he has not challenged APNU on the matter.
Of course it is perfectly true, as Mr Ramkarran stated, that the government, its coalition manifesto notwithstanding, has no interest in constitutional reform. There has been a great deal of supposed activity in relation to the matter, with, among various other things, a Steering Committee on Consti-tutional Reform being set up under the chairmanship of Nigel Hughes in 2015 – never mind that this country’s Constitution provides for a permanent Parliamentary Standing Committee – which reported in April of the following year; a UN team to investigate and advise; symposia at Turkeyen and Tain with assistance from the Carter Center and the British High Commission; the setting aside of $80 million in the budget by Finance Minister Winston Jordan to accelerate the constitutional reform process and establish a secretariat for a Commission; and the submission of the Hughes report to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, following which a Bill on the Constitutional Reform Consulta-tive Committee was supposed to be passed and assented to. Mr Nagamootoo is to head the Commis-sion, and the Bill went to Standing Committee last year. The best that anyone knows, as of earlier this year the Bill
was mired in Cabinet.
As for President Granger himself, he appears to be in make-haste-slowly mode. Earlier he was quoted as saying “I don’t want boardroom constitutional reform; I want public discussion.” There has never been any suggestion that public discussion would not be involved; it was before. However, if he believes ‘boardroom’ discussion can be excised from the process, he is mistaken. Constitutions must have a legal and philosophical framework, which cannot be supplied by patching together disparate elements from any number of public sources. In addition to that they must have an internal coherence. It is impossible to believe he is not aware of that, so that one is tempted to wonder whether he sees public consultation as a possible delaying tactic.
The truth of the matter is that the two major parties are not interested in constitutional reform. For the most part, the upper echelons of the big parties are transfixed by the possibility of power, especially presidential power, which the reformers have their eyes on curbing. And that applies as much to the PPP/C as it does to the PNCR. Even President Cheddi Jagan when he came to office suddenly had no interest in reforming the constitution or truncating the President’s power, contrary to what he had been saying when the PNC was in office.
As for the PPP, it had 23 years to institute reform but made no move; its position now is a reflection of the fact it is in opposition.
And then there is the constituency base on both sides. Even that base may have little interest in reform, including presidential reform. They want a president from their own party who has enough power to represent their interests, and not be fettered by constitutional chains which might favour an opposition. In other words one has the uncomfortable feeling that the more discerning membership on either side is far from being in a majority.
At the rate the parties are going and without action on the part of the AFC, it could even be there will not be enough time for thoughtful constitutional reform on a larger scale, although with a bit of will, certain isolated changes could be made, such as making it possible for coalitions to be formed after an election. The question is: Is the will there?