• 23 May, 2024

Guyana Constitution Discriminates against Amerindians; emulate South African Electoral Model to allow independents to run for national office

Guyana Constitution Discriminates against Amerindians; emulate South African Electoral Model to allow independents to run for national office

Guyana Constitution Discriminates against Amerindians; emulate South African Electoral Model to allow independents to run for national office

On running for elections, the constitution of Guyana seriously discriminates against the native Amerindian people and others who dwell in the hinterland areas. The law must be changed to allow for anyone (an independent or a head of a party) who is a citizen to seek elective office without having to fulfill cumbersome rules and requirements that make it almost impossible for a native person to run for President.

 

A new law has come into effect this week in South Africa allowing independent candidates to run for national and provincial offices including as President and as Premier of a Province (Region in Guyana). As in Guyana, prior to now, only political parties could run for national and regional (Provincial) offices.  Lawyers, politicians, voters and public opinion felt the restrictions were unfair and unconstitutional denying citizens a right to seek national elective office or their own political representation.  There were no court challenges although they were being considered as the law restricts the rights of citizens to run for office. Virtually no traditionally democratic country, other than Guyana and South Africa, denied (deny) independents their natural rights to seek representational office. The South African parliament finally caved in to demand to change the law allowing independents to run for national and provincial elections. President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the bill into law that puts names of independents on ballots. The South African Elections Commission has put the law into effect this week and has begun preparation for elections next year. Votes that independents receive will be converted into seats to the national or provincial parliament.  It is not clear how it will be done if a candidate wins votes for more than one seat – can he or she appoint MPs other than self.

As in Guyana, in South Africa voters cast ballots for a party and its list of candidates. The parties have a Presidential candidate. In Guyana, the party with the most votes wins the Presidency and forms the government. Parliamentary seats are distributed based on a PR system; the 65 seats are allotted based on percentage of votes received. The head of the list chooses the MPs based on patronage and loyalty rather than on competency or ability to attract votes or on commitment to do what is best for constituency or country. The MPs are beholden to the appointer (head of list).

 

In South Africa, parliament of 400 MPs chooses the President – the candidate that receives the support of more than 200 MPs wins the Presidency.  The ANC has won all the Presidencies since 1994 based on receiving a majority of votes in the elections and by extension a majority of MPs. Thus, its candidate got elected as President. As in Guyana, the seats to parliament are distributed based on a PR system according to percentage of votes received in the election. Last election, ANC received 57% of the votes. Latest opinion polls put the ANC below 50% of the votes for the 2024 elections. The ANC is hoping it can woo independent MPs if it falls short in next year’s elections.

Under the new South African law, anyone can run for President or Premier or MP or Councillor without affiliation with a party. And as allocated to a party, the independent candidate will be assigned seats in parliament – it is not clear how this will be done. The number of seats assigned to an independent Presidential candidate will be based on percentage of votes received. The Elections Commission is working out the detail on how the independent will appoint MPs if he or she wins sufficient votes for seats to parliament.

 

Guyana’s (Burnham) constitution does not allow independents to run for national or regional office although they can run for local office. There is no logic to this discrepancy and is viewed as a violation of a citizen’s basic right to seek elective office.  Lawyers I spoke with in Guyana and the Caribbean say the law is unconstitutional as it deprives citizens the right to seek the Presidency or run for parliament or as a Regional Councillor. Citizens should challenge this burdensome law that denies equality to all.

 

There are several contradictions in the Guyana constitution on who can run for President. Anyone can run for President but only as head of a party and meet minimum requirements (signatures) from at least six regions. Such a rule violates one’s right to be independent, free of political (party) affiliation. The law makes it very cumbersome and a financial burden for citizens especially in the hinterland regions (1, 7, 8, 9, in particular) to seek the Presidency even if one is running as head of a party. The law requires minimum signatures in a petition from at least six regions. It may be less cumbersome to obtain such signatures in Regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, (all coast centered) and 10 where the bulk of the population reside. Clearly, the law favors coast-based parties that receive the bulk of their support from those areas, discriminating against parties that are indigenous or hinterland based from Regions 1, 7, 8, and 9. The law imposes a heavy burden on indigent people to run for office (Presidency). That is a basic violation of equal rights of all citizens and is discriminatory against our native people. I am surprised lawyers have not challenged the law on who can run for office. I call on decent minded rights lawyers like Chris Ram, Timothy Jonas, Ralph Ramkarran, Mursaline, Santram, Darshan Ramdhanie, Pollard, among others to challenge this discriminatory law.

 Simultaneously, I urge the political parties to immediately table an amendment in parliament for constitutional change to allow independents to run for office as well as to remove the requirements of signatures from six regions in order to run for national or regional office. Such a move will make all parties equal and allow them (particularly Amerindian based) to seek national or regional office. In this day and age, citizens should enjoy greater, not less, rights and be allowed to pursue political dreams of seeking elective office. South African has made a progressive change allowing any citizen to run for office as is the law in modern democracies. Guyana should follow suit!

Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.