With dramatic effect on Monday, Guyana President Donald Ramotar exercised his powers under the constitution to suspend the National Assembly. That Assembly, in which President Ramotar’s party is in the minority, has since 2011 been the source of ever-increasing problems for his administration. Inside the Assembly, things were coming to a head this week with a planned no-confidence vote that the government seemed sure to lose.
The president’s prorogation of the Assembly averted the vote, which was no doubt the main motive for invoking this constitutional power, and has allowed breathing space for the government to function without a terminal threat of collapse hanging over its head. Should this extension be stretched to its legal limit under Guyana’s constitution, the government will be lawful but illegitimate. Which is how the notorious regime of Forbes Burnham stayed in office for decades.
So the opposition parties, clearly taken by surprise, have immediately called for protest demonstrations. Given the historical pattern of protests in Guyana rapidly getting out of hand, this call resounded ominously in the ears of neighbouring nations, and even at the Organisation of American States (OAS). Guyana has enjoyed relative peace for more than a decade, and the OAS lost no time calling for renewed efforts toward achieving “understanding and compromise” among the parties.
By contrast, a response from CARICOM has, as usual, been slow in coming, so clearly the present heads see no urgency to redress that regional body’s historical acceptance and silence in the face of Burnham’s oppressions. Meanwhile, hope is already being voiced by the Guyanese opposition parties that the police and defence forces will “act on the side of the people and not allow themselves to be used against them”. But action or inaction on that front will be perceived as political interference in the military and quasi-military bodies, which will only exacerbate an already tense situation.
The Guyanese leaders must realise they are on a slippery slope, and they need to press a reset button for the conduct of their government and politics. In that context, a useful example may be drawn from Canada, where in 2008 then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the identical tactic as President Ramotar for the very same reason. The Canadian electorate later made it clear that such an action was not the best democratic practice.
In similar fashion, the Caribbean people, and their governments, should urge the Guyanese people to settle matters in the peaceful Canadian way, rather than through actions that invoke the grim and ruinous past of political unrest in that republic.
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