The challenges of succession
Robert Corbin’s successor as Leader of the People’s National Congress/Reform (PNCR) is about to embark on an assignment that will either make or break his political career. At 55 the PNCR can afford to have no lesser ambition than that of seeking to return to political office, sooner rather than later; that is the minimum objective that will be asked of the party’s new leader.
These, however, are different times. The PNCR has, on four occasions and notwithstanding quite a few reinventions of itself, failed to regain political office, and even its staunchest adherents will probably agree that accomplishing this, at least in the short term, could take some doing.
In the period since its loss of power in 1992 the PNCR has undergone some changes. In his address at the opening of the Party’s 17th Biennial Delegates Conference on Friday Mr Corbin let it be known that he had been the first Leader of the PNCR to witness the election of a successor. The point which we believe Mr Corbin was seeking to make was that the era of the maximum leader or the ‘Leader For Life,’ if you will, had come to an end under his watch. In other words it was under his leadership that the process of choosing a successor had become a much more democratic one. Both Desmond Hoyte, Burnham’s successor and after him, Corbin, had to endure having questions raised about their leadership. That would never have occurred under Burnham.
There are those who say that failing health and the pressures associated with intra-party criticism of his leadership style would probably have led Hoyte to quit the leadership of the party if he had lived a year longer. In Mr Corbin’s case he survived a bout of serious illness after which he became sufficiently cognizant of the challenges to his leadership to give up on what would have been a final opportunity to run for the presidency. The decision to abandon an ambition which every political leader must surely have was forced upon Corbin by pressures from inside the PNCR, among party members, who made it clear that the party was more likely than not to face a heavy defeat if Mr Corbin ran for the presidency. His announcement that he would not lead the PNCR into the November 2011 poll was, in effect, both a public acknowledgement of his decline as the leader of the party and a signal that sooner rather than later he would give up the leadership of the party. In a sense he was fortunate to have been allowed to choose both the timing and circumstances of his departure.
The end of Mr Corbin’s tenure as leader of the PNCR also marks the definitive end of an era for the party. Robert Corbin was what one might call a direct political descendant of Forbes Burnham. He came through the ranks, sat at Burnham’s feet and built his political career under Burnham. His successor lacks that lineage. This, of course, raises the question as to what has become of that generation of party ‘comrades’ from which, arguably, a successor to Mr Corbin might have been chosen. The answer, of course, lies in the various transformations which the PNC had to endure following Burnham’s death in 1985, and the loss of political power suffered by the PNC in 1992. The consequential decline in both the membership base and the rank and file support which the party had once enjoyed impacted on the youth arm of the party, the Young Socialist Movement (subsequently re-named the Youth and Student Movement) whence a replacement for Mr Corbin might have been expected to come. In subsequent years death was to rob the PNCR of at least one senior member who was regarded as possessing outstanding leadership potential, while several others simply drifted away from the party. Indeed, there are those who might even argue that it was the PNC’s loss of political power that was principally responsible for its loss of an entire generation of potential leaders.
Now that the PNCR has finally elected a successor to Mr Corbin, one might well ask whether, in the first instance, the divisions which came to the fore during the campaign to elect a leader can be set aside, or whether those differences will endure. The question is relevant for two reasons. First, it is no secret that the bickering between the rival camps during the campaign for the PNCR’s presidential candidature endured beyond the campaign, on occasion becoming a matter of embarrassment to the party. Secondly, the PNCR – in its present condition – can hardly afford the stresses and strains that will inevitably arise out of divisive internal politics. That would mean that the party would have to continue to endure dwindling confidence in its ability to become an effective political force and in its ability to present itself as a political alternative to the incumbents.
It is the rebuilding of a sturdy political base that surely has to be the PNCR’s biggest challenge. It has, for years, had to endure a serious loss of supporter confidence and a consequential emotional detachment among some of its grass roots supporters. That detachment is unlikely to be remedied unless the party can create a sense that it can mount a credible electoral challenge. To some extent, it is the feeling among traditional supporters of the party that the PNCR is unlikely to win an election that keeps them away from the polls.
One positive transformation that might have taken place inside the PNCR is its apparent preparedness to admit that it has been guilty of neglecting those party cells that kept its faithful together over the years.
The question that arises is whether the new party leader possesses the support and the stamina to take on the hard graft that will be necessary to put those cells back together and, more importantly, to sustain them.
And while the PNCR continues to lead the parliamentary coalition A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) in the National Assembly, the party – and particularly Mr Corbin – has continually sent glaring signals that it intends to maintain its own identity which of course means that its extra-parliamentary work that seeks to both broaden and strengthen its political constituency is at least as important as what it does inside the National Assembly. Perhaps above all else the new leader needs to strike a balance between consolidating the parliamentary coalition and strengthening the party that leads that coalition.