The end of the era of the ‘strongman’?–President Granger and the constitution in wake of Guyana’s other executive Presidents.
EVER since the introduction of the 1980 Constitution, the Republic of Guyana institutionalised an Executive Presidency which lawfully entrenched its incumbents as constitutional dictators. A constitutional dictator is an incumbent President who is lawfully empowered by the Constitution to invoke its entrenched dictatorial powers anytime he or she so chooses. The President is not only the head-of-state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but also the “supreme executive authority” of the country. Government Ministers are creatures of the Executive President and may only exercise the delegated authority of their office on the President’s behalf. The President has veto powers over executive commissions, including the Elections Commission. Guyana’s executive presidency has powers to appoint members of the Judiciary and to prorogue or dissolve the Parliament.
Parliament is the only arm of government with the constitutional authority to remove the President “for violation of the Constitution or gross misconduct”. Yet, the powers of the executive presidency can negate or neutralize those of the Parliament by the issuance of presidential decrees that prorogue or dissolve that body. The Guyana Constitution makes a “strongman” out of its Executive President. The strongman in this context is a “constitutional dictator”. During and even after leaving office, the President cannot be tried by the courts, or held legally liable for any act he/she may have committed while occupying that office. The President is essentially above the law. Guyana’s Executive President, like Caesar, bestrides the country like a colossus!
Guyana has had eight executive presidents. Only two of these, Forbes Burnham, October 6, 1980 to August 6, 1985; and Desmond Hoyte, August 6, 1985 to October 9, 1992 were from the People’s National Congress (PNC). Five of the country’s executive presidents came from the People’s Progressive Party (PPP): Cheddi Jagan ruled from October 9, 1992 to March 6, 1997; Samuel Hinds ruled from March 6, 1997 to December 19, 1997; Janet Jagan ruled from December 19, 1997 to August 11, 1999; Bharrat Jagdeo ruled from August 11, 1999 to December 3, 2011; Donald Ramotar ruled from December 3, 2011 to May 16, 2015. President David Granger from APNU/AFC has been serving from May 16, 2015 to the present. He is the only Executive President not derived exclusively from either the PPP or PNC.
President Bharrat Jagdeo ruled Guyana for almost 12 years and was the longest-serving executive president. He will likely retain that title since the Constitution was amended to limit an incumbent to no more than two terms. President Desmond Hoyte ruled for seven years. All of Guyana’s other executive presidents occupied the office for less than five years, including President Burnham and President Jagan. President Samuel Hinds acceded to the presidency after the death of President Cheddi Jagan and served for only nine months. Hinds was Cheddi Jagan’s Prime Minister and constitutional successor. He belonged to the Civic arm of the PPP/C and merely warmed the seat of power until Janet Jagan, the logical successor to Cheddi Jagan, took over. Janet Jagan had served as the Prime Minister for President Hinds. Had he chosen to do so, President Samuel Hinds could have constitutionally defied the PPP/C and kept himself in power for much longer. For his loyalty to the PPP/C, Samuel Hinds was remarkably kept as Prime Minister of the country for just over 22 years under the other four PPP/C Presidents. His occupancy of loyalty resulted in Guyana having had eight executive presidents, but only five prime ministers.
President Janet Jagan resigned after ruling for just under two years and died ten years later in 2009. Her presidency was plagued by tumultuous street protests by citizens who objected to her becoming President, because she was not born in Guyana. She was the only woman in the history of Guyana to be appointed both Prime Minister and Executive President. Both Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan died in office without serving out a full term. It is almost as if the office of Executive President consumes the very lives of those who want to retain it the most.
Forbes Burnham was the architect of Guyana’s 1980 Constitution and he designed it to keep himself in power for life and to bring about unchallenged socialist transformation in Guyana. Known as the “Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana,” it makes the President not only the supreme executive authority, but also the supreme legislative and judicial authority. Burnham’s handpicked successor, President Desmond Hoyte used the considerable and unchecked powers of the presidency to repudiate and transform the cooperative socialist development path his predecessor had charted. Hoyte almost single handedly used the presidential powers to change Guyana from a socialist to a market-oriented development path while touting the private sector as the engine of growth. Hoyte also ended his party’s rigging of national elections, restrictions on a free press and restored free and fair elections. These actions led to the democratic replacement of the PNC party in government by Cheddi Jagan’s PPP.
It is important to note that both the PNC and the PPP endorsed and embraced the powers of the Presidency. For 23 years the PPP, while in government, did very little to reduce these dictatorial powers. Indeed, in the early 1980s, I interviewed Dr. Cheddi Jagan on the topic “Ministerial Government in Guyana” for over an hour at the PPP headquarters, Freedom House. I was ushered to his office by Ms. Gail Teixeira who was at the time serving as his administrative assistant. Janet Jagan, then editor of her party’s newspaper the “Mirror”, occupied the office next to her husband. She was in her office and did not attend the meeting. I specifically asked Dr. Jagan if he was in agreement with the 1980 Constitution and all the powers it accorded the President. He categorically told me that he had “no problems with the Constitution”. He said that his only objection was operational but not constitutional. He lamented that “Burnham appointed too many Vice Presidents and Government Ministers” and that when he becomes President he will have far fewer ministers and only one or at most, two Vice Presidents. Burnham at that time may have had five Vice Presidents. It was a sobering moment for me in recognizing that the charismatic leadership of Guyana’s two mass parties had more in common than the nation realized. Cheddi Jagan himself was by his own admission a “strongman” and an authoritarian leader that would also have taken Guyana down a socialist path if availed the opportunity.
The Guyanese people have had decades-long love affair with the “strongman”. Both Burnham and Jagan were charismatic leaders and their supporters loved them and endorsed whatever they ordained. These founding-fathers of the Guyanese nation were strongmen in their own right before becoming the heads of their governments. They were the lifelong and unchallenged leaders of Guyana’s two mass-based parties. The ability to control mass parties as well as the government is at the very foundation of this type of “strongman” leader. Acceding to the office of Executive President made them supremely and widely powerful as well. The other six presidents became “strong” mainly as a consequence of their incumbency as executive president. The problem with strongman rule is that it is essentially authoritarian and undermines the democratic processes in a society. The PPP and PNC political parties led by these strongmen were themselves undemocratic institutions. Further, strongman rule is inherently disposed to diminish transparency and accountability with resultant regimes characterized by widespread corruption and authoritarianism.
Why then are the Guyanese people attracted to strongman rule? The strongman leader is able to widely dispense political patronage. They appoint loyal followers to prime positions and create jobs even when no work exists. They blur the lines between government assets and resources and personal property. They dispense favours to family, friends and supporters. Importantly, they create the illusion that without them being in power all will be lost. Strongman rule has created a culture of dependency among the Guyanese people on their government and above all its ultimate ruler. Government bureaucracies are made to serve the leader or his party’s demands instead of the country as a whole. The consequence of this culture of dependency on such authoritarian leadership is that followers are inoculated from self-reliant development. Those opposed to the ruler and his mass supporters are marginalised and alienated with concomitant negative consequences for the development of the country as a whole. Mass migration from Guyana over the past three or four decades is an enduring index and direct consequence of the Guyanese people estrangement from their rulers, be they from one mass party or the other.
Not a ‘strongman’
This brings us to the current ruling APNU/AFC coalition administration. Though the Presidency retains its paramount power, President David Granger is the head of a broad based coalition government that imposes serious restraints on his exercise of such strongman powers. He therefore does not have the freedom space to readily dole out patronage benefits, even if he wanted to, and to adumbrate policies and programs with which the other coalition party members collectively disagree. The populace cannot turn to him to readily meet their needs. Getting things done for the country as a whole and his own supporters in particular is often the result of transactional arrangements with other coalition partners. The President is not unresponsive. He is instead accountable.
Government ministers may be constrained to go rogue in order to provide preferential treatment to supporters of their own party in the coalition. The watchdog media in the country are ever inclined to expose any contrary actions by the President, his government ministers and other state officials. The Opposition PPP Party is also ever ready to rightly or wrongly call out any action by President Granger that smacks of patronage, corruption or that is contrary to the laws of the land. The demands for the new government to be transparent and accountable are deafening and are seemingly bearing fruits of good governance, if not also sometimes paralysis. The end result is that although he is also the leader of the PNC, President Granger is not a strongman.
Though liked personally by many, David Granger is not a “strongman” ruler. From all appearances, is seemingly wary about projecting that he wants to be one. He was democratically elected to be leader of the PNC, a mass party that has been working to shed it authoritarian image and which coalesced with other political parties to contest the 2015 General Elections and form the Government. While ethnic rivalry has defined political participation in Guyana for decades, the demographic transition resulting from migration has made it almost impossible for future governments not to be organised as coalitions of some kind or the other.
Is this then the end of the era of the strongman? The Guyanese people have become accustomed to the failures of their past governments to be transparent, accountable and democratic, and, above all to develop the country. People came to realise that whether they support the leader from one party or another, the fate of the country in the past has been less than salubrious. They have got to demand and become accustomed to a changed political culture and process that eschew the authoritarianism, personalism and corrupt practices of their past rulers.
Reform of constitution
Central to the electoral platform of the APNU/AFC Coalition Party was the demand to reform the Constitution of Guyana to, among other things, considerably reduce the powers of the Presidency. There seems to be generalized support for constitutional reform from the opposition PPP, civic groups and the country as a whole. Yet, the APNU/AFC Coalition has not acted with due haste to get this done. Is it the allure of the absolute power of the Executive Presidency that may have begun to intoxicate those who ran to change it? While there is no evidence of this, it is imperative that the Government act now to get constitutional reform done. Doing so will be the greatest democratic advancement for Guyana since it attained its independence in May 1966. It will also be the single biggest achievement of the APNU/AFC Coalition Government in its very first term. It will enshrine the foundations for enduring democracy and development in the country. By accomplishing sensible and fundamental constitutional reform, President David Granger can be permanently etched in Guyana’s history as a truly great President who reduced the powers of his own Executive Presidency in order to advance democracy and development of the country he so dutifully serves and loves.