The signing by President Jagdeo and Opposition Leader Robert Corbin on Tuesday, May 6, of the Communique embodying agreements reached on implementing constitutional amendments and related matters is all the more significant because it is the outcome of a long and difficult negotiations process, often marked by acrimony and impasse that is the very reason for optimism; neither side will lightly abandon what has been so hardly gained.
Internally it should enable a resumption on the tasks of building a single society which is the only possible basis for sustained development. Externally these new constitutional arrangements which should make for cohesion will serve as Guyana’s best security shield against territorial claims. It should likewise go far in enhancing the image of Guyana as a secure place for foreign investment.
This is neither the time nor the place in which to discuss in any detail the wide range of mechanisms identified in the Joint Communique for deepening the parliamentary process. However, it is considered that it might be useful in ensuring national consensus to try to put these developments into an international context. In short it matters whether the agreements are seen only as first settlements between two contesting parties or as reflecting an international trend.
There is now growing international recognition that democratic governance matters for development and that democracy must mean more than free and fair elections - although that must be its essential basis, as Guyanese are not likely to forget. Democratic governance is increasingly seen as requiring in addition and among other elements widespread people participation and accountability. The editor, Moises Naim, of the US Foreign Policy journal has drawn attention to how these insights apply to the situation of unrest and disorder which emerged next door in Venezuela. Writing in the New York Times on March 5, Naim wrote:
“Under Mr Chavez, Venezuela is a powerful reminder that elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy, and that even long standing democracies can unravel overnight. A government’s legitimacy flows not only from the ballot box but also from the way it conducts itself. Accountability and institutional restraints and balances are needed. The international community became adept at monitoring elections and ensuring their legitimacy in the 1990’s. The Venezuelan experience illustrates the urgency of setting up equally effective mechanisms to validate government’s practices.”
In this same connection the UNDP devoted its annual Human Development Report 2002 to the subject “Deepening democracy in a fragmented world.” In researching this subject UNDP assembled a huge number of national experts and consultants and held regional meetings throughout the world. One of its major findings was that: “...In countries where majority rule through the ballot box is established, it is often at the expense of minority rights; too often the absence of a democratic culture means that those who lost elections are either persecuted or refuse to accept legitimate electoral outcomes. Democracies require not just legitimate governments but legitimate oppositions too.”
In promoting the essential democratic culture, the UNDP report identified two main areas for concern. The first area is accountability. Accountability, it states, is the right of people to hold their governments to account. Accountability, the report states, can be pursued in two ways - through action by civil society and through structures of representation.
The second area is the need to develop stronger vehicles for formal participation by citizens through political parties and electoral systems.
The Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC) clearly had these considerations to the fore when they recommended amendments to the constitution, recommendations which have been translated into some of the important mechanisms the implementation of which formed the core of the agreements reached between the President and Leader of the Opposition. Indeed, President Jagdeo has claimed with justice that these recent constitutional amendments have made Guyana’s constitution the most inclusive in the Caribbean and among the most inclusive in the Commonwealth.
Thus, the amendment on the principles and bases of the constitution says “the principal objective of the political system of the State is to establish an inclusionary democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the State, with particular emphasis on those areas of decision making that directly affect their well being.”
It will be for the National Assembly and the groups which constitute civil society acting in particular through the National Assembly to ensure that this constitutional commitment is observed over the field. The amended constitution itself provides major mechanisms for this purpose including in particular the Ethnic Relations Commission already appointed, the Human Rights Commission, the Commissions for Women and Gender Equality and for the Indigenous Peoples, and the Rights of the Child.
At its meeting on Thursday, May 8, the National Assembly established an Appointments Committee which is empowered to consult any organisation or group in selecting the membership of the constitutional commissions mentioned above. It was noted during the debate that this process will ensure that the commissions are independent, autonomous and free of political interference.
Two points of the highest significance were made during the debate: first that these new mechanisms enlarge parliamentary democracy beyond the casting of ballots at elections, and second that they enhance the legal framework for the operationalisation of parliamentary democracy.
A scrutiny of these commissions, for example, the Ethnic Relations Commission, gives an idea of their power and range. Its twenty-four functions or responsibilities include investigating complaints of racial discrimination and making recommendations on the measures to be taken if such complaints are valid, monitoring and reviewing all legislation and all administrative acts or omissions relating to or having implications for ethnic relations and equal opportunities, and from time to time, preparing and soliciting proposals for revision of such legislation and administrative acts and omissions, investigating on its own accord or on request from the National Assembly or any other body any issues affecting ethnic relations. The law establishing this commission also provides for the establishment of a tribunal.
In the area of accountability a major advance will be the establishment in addition to the existing Public Accounts Committee of four standing sector committees within the National Assembly which will have responsibility for scrutiny of all areas of government policy and administration in the four comprehensive areas of Natural Resources, Economic Services, Foreign Relations and Social Services - areas which in practice cover everything. Of equal importance for accountability will be the appointment of a Public Procurement Commission which will ensure transparency and efficiency in public procurement of goods and services and in the control of expenditure.
Despite pressures for the immediate consideration of new proposals, it was clearly wise as was agreed at the meeting of the two leaders to concentrate on the implementation of the parliamentary and constitutional reforms which came out of the CRC and oversight committees and which have already been approved by Parliament.
On the other hand agreement was reached on the composition and establishment of a permanent committee on constitutional review and reform. That will be the body which will ensure that new ideas and proposals can be explored. Unlike other standing committees whose membership is restricted to Members of Parliament, the Reform Committee will reportedly have the power to coopt experts to itself. Such power to coopt would conceivably be extended to members of representative groups in civil society.
The agreements reached between the two leaders have been greeted with responses ranging from high optimism, to suspicions and speculation about what caused the breakthrough, to caution and plain disbelief.
Implementation of the new constitutional measures will not be easy. Several of them including the new commissions are complex and novel. They will need the strong support of an expert secretariat and other resources including research capacity - needs which have already attracted the attention and agreement of the two leaders.
More importantly they will need the support of a well-informed public opinion. In this connection there is a clear and urgent need for a public information campaign on those matters.
This is a time to put suspicions and misgivings aside. With these reforms in place, Guyanese must see themselves as being in the vanguard of the global process of deepening democracy, so that it becomes a better instrument for human development.