Constitutional Background

Constitutional Background

Guyana's complex constitutional history provides a useful means of understanding the conflict between local interests and those of Britain, the long-time colonial power. The colony's first constitution, the Concept Plan of Redress, was promulgated under Dutch rule in 1792 and remained in effect with modifications under British administration until 1928. Although revised considerably over the years, the Concept Plan of Redress provided for a governor appointed by the colonial power and for a Court of Policy that evolved into the colony's legislature. Reforms throughout the nineteenth century gradually broadened the electoral franchise and lessened the power of the planters in the colonial government.

As a result of financial difficulties in the 1920s and conflict between the established sugar planters and new rice and bauxite producers, the British government promulgated a new constitution making British Guiana a crown colony. The Court of Policy was replaced by a Legislative Council with thirty members (sixteen appointed and fourteen elected), and executive power was placed in the hands of a governor appointed by officials in London. Modifications throughout the 1930s and 1940s made the majority of members of the Legislative Council subject to popular election and further broadened the franchise.

The formation of British Guiana's first major political party in 1950 and growing pressure for independence again forced the British to overhaul the political framework. A royal commission proposed a new constitution that would provide for a bicameral legislature consisting of a lower House of Assembly and an upper State Council, a governor appointed by the British, and seven ministers appointed by the House of Assembly. This constitution was put into effect in early 1953. The electoral success of selfproclaimed Marxist-Leninist Cheddi Jagan and his leftist People's Progressive Party (PPP) in the April 1953 elections frightened the colonial authorities. After the new legislature passed a controversial labor bill and pressed for independence, the British suspended the constitution in October 1953 and put in place an interim government whose members were chosen entirely by British authorities.

New elections were held in 1957 to choose a majority of members in the new Legislative Council; the rest of the members were chosen by the governor. During its four-year tenure, this government set up a committee to make recommendations on yet another constitution. The committee proposed that a new government be formed with full internal autonomy. Only defense and external affairs would be managed by the British.

In 1961 the new constitution went into effect. The legislature was bicameral: the lower house, a thirty-five-member Legislative Assembly, consisted entirely of elected officials; and the upper house, the thirteen-member Senate, consisted entirely of appointees. The prime minister, who was chosen by the party with a majority of votes in the Legislative Assembly, held the most powerful executive post. Assisting the prime minister were various other ministers. The governor remained the titular head of state. The PPP won the elections of August 1961, and Jagan was named prime minister.

Labor strife and civil disturbances were widespread in 1962 and 1963. In an effort to quell the unrest, the British colonial secretary declared a state of emergency and proposed modifying the constitution to provide for a unicameral fifty-three-member National Assembly and proportional representation. The proposal was adopted, and elections were set for 1964. These elections brought to power a new coalition government headed by the PNC. However, the PPP administration refused to step down. Not until a constitutional amendment was enacted empowering the governor to dismiss the National Assembly was the old government removed from power.

Independence Constitution
Constitution of 1980

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