Presidential immunities are a relatively small part of the executive and institutional framework
Stabroek News letter. Wednesday May 21, 2008
Mr Donald Ramotar in his letter ‘A Goebbels culture held aloft by the opposition’ (KN, May 18) makes the important point that the PNC missed an earlier opportunity to reform the Constitution of Guyana. In the light of the devastation being inflicted on the country by the narcotics economy, and by the promise of the erasure of social decency by proposed investments in two casino hotels, that missed opportunity by the PNC has turned out to be a major disaster.
In fact, the PNC really erred, not after 1992 as Mr Ramotar suggests, but during the period when Mr Hoyte was president between 1985 and 1990. The authoritarian state required democratisation just as much as markets needed liberalisation. The counterpart change was necessary especially as the society was changing course from 30 years of racially polarised efforts at self determination.
The reduced immunities of the president that Mr Ramotar hails as a liberalising measure were promptly absorbed by an authoritarian PPP. The dynamics of autocracy changed. In the context of the PPP, more individuals determined the course of events – Dr Jagan was afraid of another Duncan Sandys mistake – but the authoritarian state was by no means liberalised.
The institutions – the courts, the civil service, the public services – were not democratised. A culture of public service independence was not put in place. Dr Jagan, who was the originator of the party paramountcy concept in his 1957 to 1964 regime, insisted on favoured candidates for positions as senior functionaries. Public service independence is not to be confused with autonomy. Public service independence derives from the ability to provide, without fear or favour, unbiased data and theoretically sound analyses for guidance to the executive in decision-making. However, for as long as the president has to give final approval to the appointment of the public service commissions, that independence will always be compromised.
The evidence that independence is compromised is to be seen clearly in the operations of the police force. The prevention and eradication of crime is a police function which members of the police force should pursue as professionals in the context of the policies set out by the Minister of Home Affairs. For example, if the minister determines that vigilante groups are appropriate, the police force has to accept that policy even though the police may disagree with it. If, however, the police are requested to mow down the backlands of Buxton, a police force, with a culture of independence, should refuse because that amounts to breaking the law. The present Guyana Police Force will, however, obey the Minister, because appointment and promotion arrangements are no different from what they were under Mr Burnham, notwithstanding the protestations of Mr Ramotar.
In this respect, Mr Ramjattan is correct in concluding that the authority of President Jagdeo is now just as absolute as it was under Mr Burnham and Mr Hoyte. Mr Ramotar is focusing on presidential immunities, which are a means of avoiding civil and criminal law suits, and which, although reduced, leave the President with considerable power to command the executive and to appoint the public service commissions. Domination over the public service commissions provides the leverage for determining the careers of public servants. Were that factor not important, we would not be faced with an Acting Commissioner of Police for more than a year.
It is perhaps simplistic, as Mr Ramotar is arguing, to say that the President of Guyana has excessive power. But there is little doubt than when his present powers are combined with those of his party, that the state is just as authoritarian as it was under Mr Burnham. Mr Ramotar, who in the referenced letter, appears as kinder and gentler, is an enforcer of party discipline who does not tolerate dissent within party strongholds. If he is concerned about greater democracy, he should switch his analysis to the inappropriateness of having to crush dissent in party strongholds because of his party’s commitment to uni-race rule in a multi-racial country.
It is dishonest to cast a smokescreen over that inappropriateness in governance by focusing on immunities relating to the President. Governance consists of an ideological direction that is pursued by the executive and an institutional framework by which the ideology is achieved. Presidential immunities constitute a relatively small part of the total framework.
Clarence F. Ellis