An interim constitution

Stabroek News
March 8, 2000

Constitutional reform is often associated with seemingly endless debate and consultation aimed at ensuring that the resulting document reflects the sum total of the highest aspirations of all sections of the community and their vision of what the society should be.

In some countries, the consultation process has taken as long as three years but few come to mind that have been faced with the rigid deadline imposed by the Herdmanston Accord on the process here. Because of the highly politicised nature of the society, some of the little time that was available was frittered away in manoeuvring by the political parties. As a result, the process is now subject to tight deadlines and the threat of chaos in the event of failure.

Unacceptable as it may be nothing will get done unless the PPP/Civic and the PNC are agreed on it. Thus the constitution which is likely to emerge may lack important features that many had hoped for and for which proposals had been submitted by various groups and citizens.

Quite apart from the issue of power-sharing, which was already rejected by the two main parties within the ambit of the Constitution Reform Commission, it now seems clear that several other issues on which positive recommendations have been made including, for example, a bi-cameral legislature, a comprehensive review of the powers of the presidency and gender representation are likely to be sidelined with both parties preferring to have them addressed after the elections, a tacit recognition that there is not adequate time now.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Constitution Reform Commission's report, it did recognise this problem and its recommendation that a mechanism should be put in place for keeping the constitution under review is, in part, an acknowledgment of this reality.

The Oversight Committee, therefore, is likely to return certain recommendations to Parliament without either implementation or a further decision. They will concentrate on the ones that must be tackled now, one way or the other, such as the proposed changes to the electoral system. What we will end up with, therefore, is what can be described as an interim constitution with some differences to the present l980 one but without the sort of comprehensive changes the Herdmanston Accord had envisaged. In the circumstances, it may be all we can hope for.

In retrospect, it would seem that the Accord bought peace at the expense of a substantial curtailment of the government's term of office. The dialogue has produced nothing and the constitutional reform process not much more. In effect, we have been marking time and we are now heading for another divisive election.

The PPP/Civic has expressed a commitment to holding the elections by or before the January 17, deadline. One assumes it has a clear idea in mind of what has to be done to ensure this and what steps have to be taken by prescribed dates.

What is needed from the PNC is not dire warnings of what will happen if the deadline is not met but some informed discussions of what must be done in the time that remains. And if the PPP/Civic government must not hold office beyond the l7th January, 200l, as Mr Hoyte has said, and an election cannot properly be held in time will a transitional government be feasible?

A rushed and badly run election would be a disaster. Mayhem and confusion would not be in the interest of anyone. Thought must be given to some form of consensus on the road ahead and a practical schedule for holding elections that includes new voter registration (an entirely fresh registration would take at least one year and is clearly not on the cards), the issuing of voter I.D. cards (how long will this take), the revision of the electoral system (or a decision not to amend it) and the several other issues that have to be dealt with.