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The Guyana Association of Women Lawyers had a few years ago produced a series of very useful booklets guiding citizens, in a simple and easily intelligible manner, on the law on a number of topics. Earlier this year, in collaboration with the National Commission on Women, it prepared a booklet highlighting the main constitutional changes that had been made as at March 31, 2003, pursuant to the lengthy reform process that had culminated in the approval by the Oversight Committee of some draft amendments. It is useful, at this stage, to remind ourselves of some of the important amendments that have been made.
Let us start in this editorial with the amendments that concern the Presidency. To be qualified for election as President a person must now be a Guyanese citizen by birth or parentage (not naturalisation) who is eligible to be elected a member of the National Assembly. He must also be residing in Guyana for a continuous period of seven years immediately before the date of nomination for election (absence for medical treatment or studying at a university or working abroad for the government would not lead to a person being considered not resident).
A person who holds office as President, whether by election or accession, can only be re-elected once. In other words, the maximum is a two-term presidency. The Prime Minister accedes to the office of President if the President is removed from office, resigns or dies.
The President is responsible for appointment of the Prime Minister (who must be qualified to be President in case he accedes to office), appointment of the Cabinet, appointment of Ministers to various ministries, appointment of the Attorney General, Ambassadors and Permanent Secretaries. Not more than four ministers (technocrats) and two parliamentary secretaries shall be appointed by the President from among persons qualified to be elected as members of the National Assembly. The creation of new offices by the President and the appointment of persons to those offices has been restricted.
The President may assent to or refuse to assent to a bill sent to him after being passed in Parliament. If he is not in agreement with the bill it is sent back to the National Assembly for the members to reconsider it. If they pass the bill a second time by a two-thirds majority of all the elected members the President must assent to the bill within ninety days after receiving it for the second time. Previously, the President had the power to dissolve Parliament in such a situation.
If it is desired to remove from office certain senior public servants, the President is required to appoint a tribunal comprising persons selected by the Judicial Service Commission, to determine if that officer should be removed by reason of infirmity of body and/or mind. Previously the President was only required to consult the Judicial Service Commission before appointing the tribunal.
Previously, the President could have abolished any public office or removed any public officer in the public interest. Now this power has been restricted to offices and officers not appointed by the Service Commissions.
An important amendment prescribes that the cabinet including the President shall resign if the government is defeated by a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence. However, after its defeat the government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months, or such longer period as the National Assembly may agree by a resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of all the members, and shall resign after the new President takes the oath of office following the election.
The President can be removed from office for incapacity. If a motion is passed supported by a majority of the government members of parliament to investigate the incapacity of the President, the Prime Minister has to inform the Chancellor who will set up a body of at least three medical practitioners, authorised to practice in Guyana, to investigate and report to the Chancellor. If incapacity is found, the chancellor must certify this and the President immediately ceases to be President.
The President can also be impeached for gross misconduct or violation of the constitution. There are very detailed procedures which provide eventually for a hearing before a tribunal at which the President can be heard.
There can be no doubt that there has been a considerable reduction in the enormous powers conferred on the presidency when that office was first created in the 1980 constitution and the achievements of the reform process in this regard are not negligible. One must hope that this booklet produced by the women lawyers will be widely circulated so that citizens can become fully aware of the considerable changes made.