Guyana celebrates 44th Independence Aniversary

Guyana is a sovereign republic within the Commonwealth. The country became independent on May 26, 1966 and it advanced to Republican status on Feb. 23, 1970.

Before independence the country had several systems of government.

Self Government

British Guiana, as the country was formerly called, gained self-governing status in 1961. The head of government at that time was known as premier, a position then held by Dr. Cheddi Jagan. He was assisted in the administration of the country by a cabinet of ministers which had authority only over internal matters, the British government retaining the portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Defence, etc.

The colonial power, Britain, was represented in the colony by a governor, who held veto powers over the work of the elected legislature.

There was a bi-cameral House of Assembly, with a lower house called the Legislative Council and an upper house called the Senate.

The Legislative Council consisted of 35 members elected under the system of first past the post. The senate consisted of a majority of members from the government, plus representatives from the opposition as well as two nominated members chosen by the governor after consultations with various groups.

System of Proportional Representation

In 1964 the electoral system was changed to Proportional Representation. There were now 53 members in a uni-cameral House, the Senate having been abolished. However, for logistical reasons the 35 previous constituencies were retained but were now termed electoral districts. The first elections held under the new system produced the following results: People’s Progressive Party (PPP)-25 seats, People’s National Congress (PNC)- 22 seats and the United Force (UF) –6 seats.

No party emerged with a clear majority at these elections and so a coalition government between the PNC and the UF was eventually formed. The PNC leader, Mr. Forbes Burnham became the premier and the UF leader, Mr. Peter D’Aguiar became the deputy premier and finance minister.

Independence

It was this government that led British Guiana to independence under the new name of Guyana. Mr. Burnham then became the prime minister and the previous governor was called the governor general. The first Guyanese governor general was Sir David Rose, who was tragically killed in an accident in London.

Republican Status

As soon as the constitutionally stipulated period was up, the government opted for Republican status. Under this constitution the titular head of state became the president while the prime minister continued to be the leader of the government. The uni-cameral Legislature of 53 elected members was retained. The first president of Guyana was Mr. Arthur Chung, a former high court judge.

The People’s New Constitution

In 1980 the Independence and Republican constitutions were replaced by another, which coincided with the elections of that year. The following were some of the chief features of the new constitution:

(a) The country now had an executive president, i.e. the president was both head of state and head of government. Under this constitution the president had excessive powers, such as immunity from prosecution for any act done during his term in office, the power to dismiss the Parliament, overturning decisions of the courts, the power to postpone elections indefinitely, etc. However, the president was not a member of the National Assembly although he had the power to address the Assembly at his discretion.

(b) The affairs of the government in the National Assembly were now administered by a prime minister, who was appointed by the president and who was the first vice-president ; actually there were five vice-presidents in all, in addition to five deputy prime ministers.

(c) The former leader of the opposition was now called the minority leader;

(d) The country was now divided into 10 administrative regions headed by a chairman. Each region now had an elected Regional Democratic Council, with each region sending one representative to Parliament.

(e) A National Congress of Local Democratic Organs (NCLDO), comprising representatives from all local government bodies in the country, was convened and this constitutional body was mandated to send two representatives to Parliament;

(f) The National Assembly (Parliament) now had 65 members in all, i.e. 53 directly elected members , 10 members from the regional councils and two members from the NCLDO.

(g) The Parliament now had the power to amend the constitution by a simple two thirds majority, and without the need for a concomitant referendum.

Guyana’s Elections

This constitution, called the People’s New Constitution, lasted until 2001 when it was amended. By that time, however, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had assumed the reigns of government with successive victories at the 1992 and 1997 elections. The elections of 1992 were the first free and fair elections in an independent Guyana. It was the first change of government after independence, since the former government of the People’s National Congress (PNC) had ruled the country for 28 unbroken years.

During that time the country’s first executive President, Mr. Burnham, had died in 1985 and he was succeeded by Mr. Hugh Desmond Hoyte who ruled the country for seven years until 1992.

In 1992 the PPP, led by the veteran political leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, won the elections with a comfortable majority of almost 54 per cent of the votes. The results were as follows: PPP/C-34 seats; PNC- 27 seats; the Working People’s Alliance (WPA)-2 seats; and The United Force ( TUF)- 2 seats.

By the time elections were due in 1997, Dr. Jagan had died (earlier that same year). Mr. Sam Hinds, who was the prime minister, was appointed as president to replace Dr. Jagan. For the 1997 election, the PPP appointed Dr. Jagan’s wife, Janet, to lead the party that year. The PNC was again led by Mr. Hoyte.

The results of the 1997 elections were as follows: the PPP/C- 35 seats, with about 55 per cent of the popular votes, PNC- 27 seats, WPA-2 seats and TUF- 1 seat. Mrs. Janet Jagan was, thus, sworn in as the President with Mr. Hinds again being prime minister.

Bharrat Jagdeo Becomes President

In August 1998, President Janet Jagan took in ill and the young Finance Minister, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, was sworn in as the new president.

After the PNC-organised disturbances which accompanied the 1997 elections, the term of office of the PPP was reduced by two years, thus making elections due by early 2001. These were held on March 19, 2001 under a new constitution. This was one of the demands of the PNC after the 1997 elections and it was duly implemented.

Constitutional Reform

A special Constitutional Reform Constitution (CRC) comprising representatives of all parties in Parliament was formed to undertake the process of constitutional reform. The recommendations of the CRC were implemented immediately after the 2001 elections. Some features of the new Constitution are as follows:

(a) The Parliament remains a uni-cameral Legislature;

(b) There are now 65 elected members of Parliament, with a possible extra member,i.e. 66 members, should a special situation arise;

(c) Forty members are directly elected under a system of PR at the national level, with a further 25 members elected at the regional level, with the various regions having a different number of representatives according to their population;

(d) The National Congress of Local Democratic Organs (NCLDO) has been abolished;

(e) The leader of government business in Parliament is the prime minister; the president still is not a member of Parliament.

(f) The government is elected for a five-year term;

(g) The prime minister is the first vice-president and he becomes acting- president whenever the president is abroad;

(h) All the excessive powers of the president have been abolished.

The results of the March 19 elections are as follows:

PPP-34 seats; PNC- 27 seats; WPA-2 seats; TUF- 1 seats; and ROAR-1 seat.

Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo has been elected and duly sworn in as president of the Republic of Guyana with Mr. Sam Hinds, the prime minister.

Mr. Desmond Hoyte remains opposition leader. For the first time ROAR has a member in Parliament, in the person of Mr. Ravi Dev.

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