Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The British head of state cannot be compared to an executive president

The British head of state cannot be compared to an executive president
Stabroek News letter. Tuesday May 20, 2008

Dear Editor,
PPP General Secretary, Mr Donald Ramotar, in his letter, ‘A Goebbels culture held aloft by the opposition,’ (KN, 18.5.08), would have many of us believe that, compared with the AFC’s Khemraj Ramjattan and others who have accused the Jagdeo regime of abusing the so-called ‘Burnham constitution,’ he is telling the truth that President Bharrat Jagdeo basically enjoys similar protections to those of certain other democracies. Well, truth here is relative and not absolute.
The first democracy he cited was Britain. He compared the British head of state with the Guyana head of state and said the British head of state, who is also the ruling monarch, is exempted from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts and is personally immune from civil lawsuits. What he did not clarify was that the British ruling monarch is more a ceremonial office-holder than a political office-holder.
Unlike the Queen of England, who cannot be voted in or out of her position and does not interfere in the daily running of government, the British head of government, who is also the prime minister, runs the government, is answerable to the electorate and is subjected to the laws of the land. Big difference!
Now, isn’t President Jagdeo both head of state and head of government, and Prime Minister Samuel Hinds the government’s chief representative in Parliament? The President’s overbearing intrusion into the day-to-day operations of the government leaves little doubt he is head of government, so shouldn’t he be subjected to laws of the government?
It’s unfair and unjust and a show of cowardice for a head of state to make decisions in his capacity as head of government that can adversely impact the public, then run from the public’s responses and hide behind immunity clauses reserved for the head of state.
Mr Ramotar then went on to cite the United States as his second example. But while the US President, who is both head of state and (federal) government, may be “entitled to absolute immunity in civil suits regarding all of his official acts,” and the US “courts have developed a doctrine of immunity for the [US] President,” Mr Ramotar has made it clear that “the [US] President’s immunity from criminal proceedings is unsettled.” I read ‘unsettled’ to mean s/he remains open to such an eventuality. I’m no constitutional scholar, but I know the US President is not above the law!
Mr Ramotar then rounded out his list of examples of democracies citing France, Germany and India, where the heads of state are immune to civil and criminal proceedings. Look, let us not even waste time continuing with these useless comparisons, because 1) those countries do not have the types of leaders who are given to abusing their office so that they would need to resort to such clauses for protection, and 2) even though those state heads are immune to civil/criminal proceedings, at least their countries have effective checks and balance systems in place to ensure they are constantly held publicly accountable and they run transparent governments. Abuse of office and power are extremely rare exceptions.
Now, would Mr Ramotar say if Guyana enjoys an independent and effective checks and balance system? Parlia-ment is controlled by the ruling party and every PPP MP who serves at the pleasure of the PPP can be recalled if they do not toe the party line. The judiciary is currently in shambles with political fingerprints all over it. And the independent media, serving as the public watchdog and the lone hope for checks and balance, is always under attack by government, but especially by the President. Moreover, Guyana is no way near being like the democracies Mr Ramotar cited; we have a long way to go before we can match up and catch up.
Before I close, can Mr Ramotar say why the very immunity clauses, which protected Forbes Burnham from civil and criminal proceedings, were left intact after the PPP regime modified the 1980 people’s new constitution? Was the PPP looking to replicate this behaviour?
The same Burnham that the PPP decried for 21years as a thief of the people’s votes, as a dictator who denied people some of their fundamental rights and even physically and psychologically intimidated and hurt those who openly opposed him, knew exactly why he needed the immunity clauses inserted into the 1980 constitution: because of his autocratic governance style.
Mr Ramotar, your Presi-dent can only be behaving the way he is because he knows the constitution has immunity clauses for his protection. But this is one sick way to approach governance in a country still recovering from the effects of an abuse of power by a now deceased autocrat.
President Jagdeo, who seems to be governing from the Burnham playbook, has all the hallmarks of Burnham in the early stages, and this is what is making opposition elements and political analysts and observers make enough noise to disturb the hierarchy of the PPP into arresting this reversal.
Yours faithfully,
Emile Mervin

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