Constitution of 1980

Guyana Table of Contents

As Burnham consolidated his control over Guyanese politics throughout the 1970s, he began to push for changes in the constitution that would muffle opposition. He and his colleagues argued that the changes were necessary to govern in the best interest of the people, free of opposition interference. By the late 1970s, the government and the legislature were PNC-dominated, and the party had declared its hegemony over the civil service, the military, the judiciary, the economic sector, and all other segments of Guyanese society. Burnham called the 1966 constitution inadequate and the product of British conservatism. Nationalization of private enterprise was to be the first step in revamping a system that Burnham felt had been designed to protect private property at the expense of the masses.

Two of the principal architects of the new constitution were the minister of justice and attorney general, Mohammed Shahabbuddeen, and Hugh Desmond Hoyte, the minister of economic planning. Attorney General Shahabbuddeen was given the task of selling the new constitution to the National Assembly and the people. He decried the 1966 constitution as a capitalist document that supported a national economy based on exports and the laws of supply and demand. He argued that the constitution safeguarded the acquisitions of the rich and privileged and did not significantly advance the role of the people in the political process.

The constitution of 1980, promulgated in October of that year, reaffirmed Guyana's status as a cooperative republic within the Commonwealth. It defines a cooperative republic as having the following attributes: political and economic independence, state ownership of the means of production, a citizenry organized into groups such as cooperatives and trade unions, and an economy run on the basis of national economic planning. The constitution states that the country is a democratic and secular state in transition from capitalism to socialism and that the constitution is the highest law in the country, with precedence over all other laws. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, speech, association, and movement, and prohibits discrimination. It also grants every Guyanese citizen the right to work, to obtain a free education and free medical care, and to own personal property; it also guarantees equal pay for women. However, freedom of expression and other political rights are limited by national interests and the state's duty to ensure fairness in the dissemination of information to the public. Power is distributed among five "Supreme Organs of Democratic Power": the executive president, the cabinet, the National Assembly, the National Congress of Local Democratic Organs, and the Supreme Congress of the People, a special deliberative body consisting of the National Assembly in joint session with the National Congress of Local Democratic Organs. Of these five divisions of government, the executive president in practice has almost unlimited powers.

The important constitutional changes brought about by the 1980 document were mostly political: the concentration of power in the position of executive president and the creation of local party organizations to ensure Burnham's control over the PNC and, in turn, the party's control over the people. The constitution's economic goals were more posture than substance. The call for nationalization of major industries with just compensation was a moot point, given that 80 percent of the economy was already in the government's hands by 1976. The remaining 20 percent was owned by Guyanese entrepreneurs.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress