The constitutional referendum of July 10, 1978 decisively changed the course of our history.

Dear Editor,

July 10, 2022 marks 44 years since the rigged constitutional referendum of July 10, 1978. This event paved the way for the creation of the popular new constitution which was imposed on the nation of Guyana on October 6, 1980. The July 10th constitutional referendum , 1978 amended Article 73 of the Constitution and terminated any further referendums which would abolish the provisions enshrined in the constitution, including the powers of the president, the dissolution of parliament and the electoral system, and instead their would allow it to be changed by the two-thirds majority then available to the PNC.

General elections were to be held in 1978, no later than October 25, 1978. Five years earlier, the PNC had massively rigged the 1973 general election by giving itself a two-thirds majority. As Guyanese waited unsuspectingly for the date of the new general election, Linden Forbes Burnham, then leader of the PNC and Prime Minister of Guyana, postponed the date of the election. He shrewdly devised a strategy which he presented on April 1, a Constitutional Amendment Bill Number 8 of 1978 to parliament which amended Section 73 of the Constitution. The PNC’s objective was to postpone the general elections scheduled for that year. The bill was passed by the majority of the PNC, but most people at the time were unaware of what had happened as Guyanese lived under siege, suffering power outages, severe water shortages and shortages of essential items. People lined up outside Resal Maraj in Water Street for long periods of time just to get a pint of coconut oil. Soap, toilet paper and matches were only available on the black market.

Opposition to the bill was broad, including the PPP, WPA, Guyana Council of Churches, People’s Democratic Movement, Liberator party, Rice Farmers Association, Guyana Agricultural Workers Union and Civil Liberties. Action Council. Soon after, another anti-bill group was founded. The Concern Citizens Committee (CCC) included lawyers, architects, medical professionals, educators, lecturers from the University of Guyana, trade unions and the Guyana Council of Churches as observers. The PNC suppressed the opposition and, in order to stem the flow of information, controlled the importation of newsprint. The Catholic Standard was forced to print on a stenciled photo format on a much smaller scale. The Chronicle refused to accept paid opposition ads. A peaceful picket outside Parliament was attacked by PNC thugs and picketers were badly beaten, including national poet Martin Carter.

The PNC government organized the referendum without consulting the opposition, the CDD and the CCC. The day of the July 10, 1978 referendum showed early in the morning that voters had heeded the opposition’s call for a boycott. There was a small trickle of voters, even in PNC strongholds, their supporters thought the party had it all covered. The PNC frantically at the last moment could be seen recycling militants into motor vehicles and cycles. According to the CDD, CCC and PPP, the massive electorate boycott resulted in only 14% of the electorate voting. The symbols were Home meant Yes and Mouse meant No! In the space of two days, the votes were counted in the absence of opposition observers. Poll results indicated that 71.45% of voters voted and 97.7% supported the referendum proposal. There was widespread condemnation and outrage from the opposition and civil society in Guyana and the diaspora over the shameless and blatant rigging of the referendum that was to usher in the PNC dictatorship.

On July 17, 1978, the PNC government, using its two-thirds parliamentary majority, amended the constitution and extended the term of parliament, thereby obviating the need for a general election. Four days later, Parliament reconstituted itself as the Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Socialist Constitution for Guyana. A reconvened parliament, approved by a two-thirds majority of the PNC, the PNC’s draft that became Guyana’s new popular constitution. The new constitution created an executive president with unlimited power. Former presiding officer Mr Author Chung has resigned to make way for Burnham. The PPP boycotted the parliamentary session of October 6, 1980 and deemed the Constitution fraudulent and called on Guyanese to reject the constitution which it ridiculed as a Chronicle…only suitable for use as toilet paper and as the concoction of a mad dictator. The PNC, meanwhile, said the Constitution was necessary to ensure the transition from a capitalist society to one based on socialist democracy. The constitution offered the broad masses of Guyana the opportunity to participate in important decision-making processes in the economic and political life of our country. However, the executive president’s overarching powers of immunity and protection from prosecution do not accord with socialist democracy or people power, but rather provide the executive with effective and total control of the population.

The PNC acted quickly and called a general election on December 15, 1980, and once again notoriously rigged the election by giving itself 78% of the vote. The fraudulent 1980 election came after the PNC imposed its 1980 Constitution, leaving a bloody trail behind. He has systematically eroded the rights of the Guyanese people. The return of free and fair elections in 1992 did not restore democracy to Guyana. The constitutional reform was only a facade. Neither the PPP nor the PNC have a real interest in making sweeping changes to the Constitution that would benefit the Guyanese nation, which would require a two-thirds majority. Periodic elections are therefore far-fetched because they remain the exchange of one party for the other, and the institutionalization of a succession of dictatorships in which the ruling political elites empty the country of its wealth and put Guyana up for sale, available to large capitalist consortia. The Constitutional Referendum of July 10, 1978 remains the most crucial event that decisively changed the course of our history. It unleashed such terror that caused the migration of almost half of our population and caused death and suffering to so many people.

It is truly a disappointment, and a betrayal on the part of the PPP and the WPA, which had played such an important role in mobilizing Guyanese. Guyanese women of all races, classes, religious denominations and women’s organizations not seen since 1953 stood in their thousands against the July 10 referendum. Never has the PPP or the WPA called for a COI in the processes leading to what remains the most decisive chapter in Guyanese history. It is not too late for those militant Guyanese who took part in this struggle, most of whom are now in their old age, to educate the younger generations about what happened in our history on that terrible day and to launch a call for a COI as a way out of continued rule through a fraudulent Constitution and authoritarianism.

Desmond Alli
General secretary
Guyana United Artists GUA)

Denise W. Whigham