PNC dubs constitutional committee's pace slow
-electoral system still sticking point

By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
September 29, 1999

The Special Select Committee on constitutional reform is to review the work it has completed during the five weeks of its existence when it meets today.

It will take into account the work accomplished by the two groups it set up, which were given an October 1, deadline for completing deliberations on those consensus recommendations of the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC).

The opposition People's National Congress (PNC) has raised concerns about the pace of the work of the committee but representatives of the other opposition parties--Alliance for Guyana (AFG) and The United Force (TUF)-- have different perspectives.

The work groups are chaired by Home Affairs Minister, Ronald Gajraj and Alliance for Guyana parliamentarian, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine. Roopnaraine's group has all but completed its work on the recommendations assigned to it but Gajraj's group has so far had only one meeting because of a number of scheduling difficulties. Despite a number of informal meetings, Stabroek News understands that agreement on the recommendations related to the electoral systems is still elusive. However, agreement has all but been hammered out on the relationship between the Elections Commission and the proposed permanent secretariat of the commission.

Consensus is near too on the structure of the secretariat, based on proposals arising from discussions among the staff of the National Registration Centre which forms part of the elections machinery at election time.

Another area on which agreement is near is the appointment of the minority leader, which the CRC recommended should be done by the National Assembly instead of the President as the present Constitution provides.

The failure to find agreement on the electoral system revolves around an acceptance by the PNC of the CRC's recommendation that the electoral system should be characterised by gender and geographical representation. It feels that this is achievable and is pressing for the retention of an electoral expert to provide advice as to how it could be achieved. It has circulated to the Select Committee, proposals for the terms of reference which would guide the work of the electoral expert.

The PPP/Civic on the other hand is questioning the meaning of the recommendations, contending that the present system provides for regional representation.

The PNC - which has three members on the 11-person body - is concerned too about the pace of the work of the committee which has an October 31, deadline.

In a statement circulated on Monday to the other parties on the Select Committee, the PNC noted that the committee had met some 13 times but had only completed work on eight of the 170 recommendations of the CRC. But Roopnaraine says that his group has completed work on about 20 recommendations which just needed the approval of the committee. He said that the other group had about 52 recommendations and when that group finished its work it would be another set completed.

The PNC also blames the PPP/Civic for the lack of progress and points to what it describes as the PPP/Civic's adoption of an unhelpful and negative attitude. Indicative of this attitude, the PNC statement claimed, was, among other things, the PPP/Civic's:

* refusal to agree to set out in detail what the committee intended to submit to the National Assembly in its report and recommendations which it must do by October 31;

* obstruction of every attempt to provide a structured output-oriented and time-bound approach to the work of the Committee to ensure that it is completed by the mandated October 31, deadline.

The Select Committee is serviced by the staff attached to the Parliament Office. Stabroek News understands that additional staff have been recruited to deal specifically with the work of the Select Committee. These include the Clerk to the Select Committee, Maurice Henry, and an administrative assistant, Oscar Moore, as well as an office assistant.

PPP General Secretary, Donald Ramotar could not be contacted yesterday for comment on the charges but both Roopnaraine and TUF's Manzoor Nadir feel that the claims by the PNC might be overstated to support its attribution of blame to the ruling party.

The PNC statement stressed that the "Committee has the responsibility to present to the National Assembly its report with recommendations which are ready to be converted into clauses for inclusion in the reformed Constitution. This vital stage of constitution reform must, therefore, be conducted in a structured output-oriented manner with urgency, seriousness and expedition".

Roopnaraine described the PNC statement as a "ping-pong statement" which would only serve to initiate another round of finger-pointing. He contends that the real concern of the PNC is about the likely slippage in the timetable for elections to be held by January 2001. However, he does agree that there would be some slippage in the work of the committee in terms of where it should be at this point in time.

Nadir too is of the opinion that the PNC's statement is premature and describes it as political posturing. Nadir told Stabroek News that neither the PPP/Civic nor the PNC have made up their minds as to the direction towards which they want to take constitutional reform.

He said that if both parties are serious about the issue they would have sat down with each other and come to an agreement as to how the Constitution should be reformed. Also, he said that they would get their representatives to take decisions which accord with the reforms they have agreed.

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