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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

By Chamanlall Naipaul
THE Constitution (Amendment) Bill was passed yesterday at the final sitting of the current National Assembly, but without the support of the main opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) which has signalled its intention to challenge the legality and constitutionality of the legislation in both the High Court and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

But Legal Affairs Minister and Attorney General Mr. Doodnauth Singh said the government is prepared to defend the constitutionality of the bill in the High Court or the CCJ.

The passage of the bill extends the original August 4 constitutional deadline for holding general and regional elections this year by one month.

The majority of the PNCR parliamentarians boycotted the sitting with only Leader of the Opposition and PNCR, Mr. Robert Corbin and Chief Whip Mr. Lance Carberry attending but they eventually walked out.

Corbin said the walkout and the absence of the majority of his party’s parliamentarians was to express their dissociation with the passage of the bill, but indicated that the PNCR is still open to engagements pertaining to electoral issues.

When the motion calling for the suspension of the Standing Orders to pave the way for deliberations on the bill was moved by Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Mr. Reepu Daman Persaud, Corbin in a surprise move called for a division when Speaker, Mr. Ralph Ramkarran put the motion to the vote.

Corbin and Carberry voted against, while the other opposition and government parliamentarians voted for the motion.

During the sitting too a sizeable contingent of PNCR supporters carried placards outside the National Assembly calling for house to house verification of the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE) and proclaiming “no justice, no peace”.

In moving the second reading of the bill, Mr. Singh informed the House that it seeks to amend Article 61 of the Constitution of Guyana to increase by one month the time within which an election of members of the National Assembly shall be held following the dissolution of the National Assembly.

The current period is three months, and Singh explained that the extension by one month becomes necessary in light of the indication by the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) that it will not be in a position to conduct an election before August 30 of this year.

In advancing arguments in support of the bill, he cited legal precedence in Trinidad and Tobago where similar legislation was proposed and upheld by the Privy Council.

However, Corbin vehemently denounced the bill, charging that it was an attempt by the government t to unilaterally amend the Constitution under the guise that it was a simple matter.

“There cannot be peace without justice,” Corbin declared.

He argued that the amendment was “an act of deception” to the people of Guyana as the bill was being dealt with as if it is in isolation from other parts of the Constitution.

“No doubt that dark clouds hover over Guyana,” Corbin offered.

He said a constitution cannot be interpreted in isolation and the direct impact of amendments on other sections has to be taken into consideration. He further contended that “it is clear that we are tampering with the Constitution” which is in conflict with those articles which need a two-thirds majority to be amended.

At this point, he said, he will not put forward legal arguments but will leave that to the legal luminaries at the High Court and the CCJ.

He then charged GECOM with having a very tight timetable and said if there are further slippages this could pose difficulties even with the one month extension being sought by the bill before the House.

Corbin accused GECOM of sending an unapproved document as regards the timetabling of activities to President Bharrat Jagdeo, which did not take verification into consideration.

He accused the commission of lacking transparency, consultancy and confidence building measures in its preparatory work for elections which he said was part of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the donor community, GECOM and the government. If these commitments were adhered to, many of the burning issues would not have arisen, he added

Corbin said the legislation cannot be premised on the “doctrine of urgency” as the situation with respect to GECOM meeting its time lines were known since last year.

He then went into a long tirade on verification issues. Consequently, Speaker Ramkarran intervened and queried the relevance of the issue of verification to the bill.

Corbin accused the government of using a “loophole” to put through the amendment. He suggested that such a matter should have been settled through consensus to map out a course towards peace and harmony.

Health Minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy charged that Corbin was unable to show that the bill breaches the Constitution in any way and accused him of being an intricate participant in the bygone days of electoral rigging and when people were being murdered for standing up for their rights.

He added that the People’s Progressive Party/Civic has been the architect of changing all of that and restoring freedom and democracy.

Ramsammy refuted the contention that there is a “loophole” in Article 61 for which amendment was being sought, recalling that the framers of the Constitution deliberately provided for amendment to this article by a simple majority because they had foreseen the possibility of delays of electoral preparations. “The framers allowed for flexibility,” he reiterated, noting that the Constitutional Reform Commission on which several PNCR members sat reached agreement on this issue by consensus.

In a democracy, he said decisions are arrived at either through consensus or a vote, the latter being resorted to when the former cannot be achieved.

He also debunked the claims that the 2001 voters list was not verified, stating that such a position was a misrepresentation and argued that it was a list of real persons which was sanitised. He added that no new transactions done during the period of continuous registration will be placed on the PLE without verification.

The minister also said the government was in no way responsible for the delays in preparations for election as it sought to provide GECOM with all the resources it requested.

Co-Leader of the Alliance for Change (AFC) party, Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, who supported the bill, concurred with Singh that it is legally sound but expressed disappointment that the PNCR was not present in the National Assembly, noting that the ideal situation would have been one where there is consensus.

However, he said that even if there is a further delay in electoral preparations, Article 162 of the Constitution provides for a further extension of the time to hold elections if for any reason there are more delays.

Ramjattan queried whether members of the PNCR had read these relevant articles and exhorted that they do so.

However, he appealed to the PPP/C and PNCR to demonstrate magnanimity to ensure that there is not the continuing of a “gushing of anger and cascading violence.”

Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, Mr. Manzoor Nadir also said the government is not responsible for delays in electoral preparations. He said that as regards confidence building measures, GECOM is an independent body and the running of elections rests solely in the hands of that body.

He expressed though some reservations about the manner in which GECOM deals with political parties.

Leader of the Rise Organise and Rebuild (ROAR) party, Mr. Ravi Dev felt that the government, in bringing the bill before the House, has signalled its intentions of good taking precedence over rights which are related to the general welfare of people, such as peace and progress.

Dev, however, said a government needs legitimacy and consensus leads to an enlargement of legitimacy.

Summing up the government’s argument, Singh said perhaps if the proposed amendments by the PNCR were agreed to, then it might have supported the bill, but he questioned the suitability of these for inclusion in a constitution.

“Who on God’s earth would include such proposals in a Constitution,” Singh rhetorically asked the House.

The proposed amendments by the PNCR were: “Renumber Article 61 by treating the existing Article 61 (as amended by the government’s proposed amendment) as paragraph (10 and insert as paragraph (2) the following: (2) Paragraph (1) shall have no effect until Article 69 of the Constitution is altered to permit one month to elapse between the date of an election of the members of the National Assembly and the first sitting of the National Assembly.”

“Insert the following provision to Paragraph (1): provided that this amendment shall not take effect without the consent of all political parties represented in the National Assembly expressed in writing to the President.”

When the vote was taken on the bill, 32 parliamentarians voted for it while two abstained.