Former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran says that Guyana should revert to a cabinet system of government with a prime minister as head and has endorsed a view that any party obtaining more than 10% of the vote would be entitled to join the government if it so wishes.
“Our constitutional system has been damaged by the attachment of the presidential carbuncle to our Westminster system for no good reason other than grandiosity. It has sucked the lifeblood from a vibrant, cabinet system of government and imposed a commanding authority bloated with supreme executive power over compliant ‘advisers’ holding ministerial posts. I therefore propose a cabinet system of government with a prime minister as head of government, subject to term limits, and a cabinet with the right to vote, not as advisers as at present. The president would be a ceremonial head of state elected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly. Essentially, this means returning to our Independence Constitu-tion, which worked well until it was subverted,” he wrote in his Sunday Stabroek column.
Ramkarran, who was an influential member of the PPP before quitting after nearly 50 years of membership, argued that until today’s politically disputatious situation, created by Guyana’s history and overshadowed by ethnicity, is contained by a workable constitutional system, Guyana will show little political and economic progress and instability will continue.
He said that the first step is to persuade all political parties to accept that Guyana needs a government that includes at least the two main political parties. “The PPP once championed this position but reneged on it after gaining political office in 1992. While the PPP is dangling before the public a confusing concatenation of alliance formats, including the national democratic front, the broad left front, shared governance by first building trust, which it claims from the other side of its mouth already exists through the implementation of constitutional reforms, the ‘winner does not take all,’ but which already exists through the civic alliance, promoting a different one each day of the week, the rest of Guyana ought to move forward with the discourse on constitutional reform. The PPP will undoubtedly catch up in due course, either willingly or of necessity,” he said.
The former PPP stalwart advocated a return to the Independence Constitution and said that had it been applied with the 2011 electoral results, the ceremonial president would have been obliged to invite the leader of the party, which the president believes is capable of obtaining the support of the majority of members of the National Assembly, to form the government. “Therefore, whichever party the president invited to form the government would have to satisfy him or her that it has the support of at least one other political party in the National Assembly. This would have forced the formation of a coalition government or at least forced negotiations by the party with one or more of the others for a commitment to support,” he said.
“If the PPP now has concerns that 1964 might be repeated when it obtained the plurality but was not invited to form the government, the appropriate article in the constitution can be amended to impose a duty on the president to first invite the party obtaining the plurality at the elections to form the government. Only if that party declares to the president that it is unable to form a government which would receive the support of the majority of members of the National Assembly would the president be able to then invite the party obtaining the second largest number of votes to form the government. The president would have power to require a vote of confidence in the government as the first order of business of the National Assembly,” Ramkarran asserted.
The former Speaker said that he agreed with Stabroek News columnist and former PPP government minister Dr Henry Jeffrey’s view that a coalition government can be ensured by a provision in the constitution that any party obtaining more than ten per cent of the vote would be entitled to join the government if it so wishes. “Of course, this would make the job of the president of inviting the formation of a government to be a mere formality,” he noted.
In his ‘Future Notes’ column, Dr. Jeffrey had advocated for the establishment of a political constitution that provides for the possibility of coalition-type governments and thus contains strong institutional checks and balances to guard against the kind of executive abuse that such regimes could engender. The constitution must also seek to facilitate the development of conditions that will promote multi-ethnic politics and the resulting competitive liberal democratic state.
In terms of reforms, he had said that to deal with the issue of exclusion/ inclusion, at least for a transition period, the constitution will need to provide that once a party achieves some threshold, which he suggested could be 10% of the votes, at national elections, it has a right to a pro rata share of the government.
Ramkarran said that devising a system for the scrutiny of government without an opposition would be a challenge. “I do not believe that less dominance by the executive of the legislature by keeping ministers away from membership of the legislature and even electoral reform to introduce realistically sized constituencies would guarantee more independence of members of the body. Ethnically driven political solidarity and the possible interruption of benefits flowing from membership would defeat such an effort. One possibility that comes to mind is an upper chamber consisting of persons with no party political affiliation nominated from civil society by the president in his own deliberate judgment. To be effective it would have power to meaningfully influence legislation that comes before it,” he said.
Jeffrey had said that Guyana should look no further than the presidential system of the United States, where the president must negotiate with members of his own party. “The president should be elected by at least 50% of the votes cast. In our developing ethnic situation, this will force those wishing to be president to craft their policies to gain support across ethnic lines and also to negotiate across parties,” he had said.
“Also, to further entrench the separation between the executive and the legislature, as in the US, the executive (ministers) should not be members of parliament. The president will have the right to hire and fire his cabinet but must always keep the party proportionalities,” he wrote. “Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the fact that some ministers are nominated by the opposition would not necessarily cause persistent cabinet dissension. Rather, since the president has the right of dismissal, the opposition will also need to guard against their nominees becoming ardent acolytes of the president,” Jeffrey had said.
“Furthermore, the president should not be able to prorogue the National Assembly. Both s/he and the Assembly should be in office for fixed periods and the Assembly should manage its own personnel and financial affairs and have the right to adjust and negotiate with the government the formation of national budget,” the former minister said.
“In this context, we should eschew the notion of parliamentarians viewing themselves as part of the government and opposition and return to the situation where parties in parliament are, as in the US, designated majority and minority parties. They should be encouraged to view themselves as representing constituent and national interests,” Jeffrey declared.