Threatening Democracy in Guyana

first_imgToday, in Guyana, even as there is growing trepidation over the modus operandi of the Government — which can only be describes as “unilateralism” — there has been a loss of focus to rectify the political institutional arrangements that have permitted this development. In 1992, we boasted rightfully that “free and fair” elections had been returned to Guyana, and had ushered in the dawning of the age of democracy into Guyana.But “democracy”, like most value concepts, can only be appreciated within its historical context and development: we must always keep in mind the historical specificity of institutions. The political institutions of Guyana were directly imposed on Guyana by the European colonial powers, primarily Britain. There, the development of the democratic idea went hand in hand with the development of Liberalism, and for most Britishers the two were coterminous, especially during the phase of struggling for constitutional government. They are not coterminous, and the famous distinction by F.A. Hayek is apropos:“Liberalism is concerned with the functions of government and particularly with the limitation of all its powers. Democracy is concerned with the question of who is to direct Government. Liberalism requires that all power, and therefore also that of the majority, be limited. Democracy came to regard current majority opinion as the only criterion of the legitimacy of the powers of government.”As we attempt to institutionalise democracy, which the British insisted should be practised by Guyanese, it would do us well to keep in mind the distinction occasioned by the exigencies of the British experience.Burnham, in the post-Independence period, had insisted on centralising power in an “Executive Presidency”, which on paper gave him more authority that even the US President. It would appear he agreed with Thomas Hobbes’s early formulation that all powers of the state ought to be conferred into the person of the monarch, who would govern the “Leviathan”. Burnham, however, used this power so arbitrarily and brutally that by 1992 there was an almost universal acceptance that the Constitution – which authoritatively codifies the institutional arrangements for the country’s governance – needed to be modified to “improve democratic governance.”The budding constitutional consultations were unfortunately overtaken by protests and violence following the 1997 elections, the results of which the PNC refused to accept. In a peace brokered by CARICOM, the Herdmanston Accord mandated constitutional change be instituted to ensure, in effect, that the Liberal perspective on democracy – limitation of the powers of the majority to prevent the “tyranny of the majority” — be given institutional substance. The powers of the presidency were in fact reduced in changes enacted in 2000, and the National Assembly was given greater oversight powers over the Executive via newly formed four “Sectoral Committees”, which included members of the Opposition, which could occupy the rotating chairs.All of the changes were geared at reducing unilateralism in a Westminster-patterned governmental structure in which the Executive was in total control of the Legislature and in effect degutted the principle of “Separation of Powers” of government on which the Liberal control of the majority is effectuated. In England, the system which allows the “other side to be heard” (auditor et altera pars) works because of the strength of unwritten conventions that are as powerful as their unwritten constitution. In Guyana, some of the changes to curb unilateralism in the Executive and to allow the Opposition “to be heard” were to effectively introduce what is called a “minority veto” in explicitly defined consociational polities.For instance, the Opposition Leader has to agree to the appointment of the Chancellor and Chief Justice of the Judiciary. This is very critical, since with a fused Executive and Legislature, the Judiciary becomes the only bastion against majority tyranny at best, and dictatorship at worst. In the democratic aspect of elections, the president was supposed to select the GECOM Chair from a list proffered by the Opposition Leader.That the President has vitiated these two Liberal democratic innovations is alarming.last_img

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