Four successive electoral defeats have badly weakened the People’s National Congress Reform party. The present leader Robert Corbin has been roundly blamed for the last one in 2006 and many of his own party members are convinced that, unless the party changes him, it will face a fifth defeat. But has his tenure as leader passed the point of no return and will his removal reverse the PNCR’s deteriorating performance at the polls?
The state of the People’s National Congress Reform has attracted negative comments in the media. Party members have publicly expressed concern about Robert Corbin’s leadership capabilities and the PNCR’s viability as a credible opposition to the People’s Progressive Party-Civic administration. One letter writer claimed that “Under the leadership of Robert Corbin, the PNC has taken political body blows that have rendered it weak, stultified and directionless. The Party is now bereft of the capacity to flourish and enlarge itself, to inspire and aspire, and to instill passion and the will to survive in its constituencies.”
As the party’s 16th Biennial Congress approaches in August this year, the ferocity of criticism and the tempo of agitation have intensified. The party’s biennial congress alone has the power to elect the party leader and the central executive committee and some people are dreaming of using the opportunity of the forthcoming congress to persuade Mr Corbin to demit office or to remove him from his present position by electing someone else. It is very likely that they are going to be disappointed.
Mr Robert Corbin, now 61, has held executive positions for over 44 years in the Young Socialist Movement − now the Guyana Youth and Students Movement − and in the PNC and served as an elected member of the National Assembly. He was elected leader in February 2003 after the death of Desmond Hoyte in December 2002.
At first, he impressed the party’s left wing with walkabouts in Annandale and Buxton, during the troubles on the East Coast Demerara. The party’s right wing applauded his abandonment of street protests and the return to the National Assembly. The party’s centre welcomed his frequent assurances of reform. Everyone hoped that he would have rebuilt the party organisation which his predecessor neglected. The party’s arms − the National Congress of Women and the Guyana Youth and Students Movement – had atrophied and it was expected that the experienced Corbin would have rehabiltated them. Most of all, it was imagined that he was an elections wizard who could reverse the trend of diminishing votes, increase PNCR seats in the National Assembly and, once again, the party would prosper.
Faced with this mountain of unrealistic expectations, Corbin cautiously tried to correct the misconception that the party leader was solely responsible for formulating and executing policy, noting “It is a mistake to think that any one person could change or direct the affairs of the party…Even if the membership decides at the next congress to have another leader, that leader would have the same constraints and scope.” He did not say, of course, that a new leader could also bring fresh insights and new talents.
Corbin also recalled his declaration that the PNCR would not have progressed in its goal to reform itself if the leadership featured the same faces by the next congress. He had given the impression that the party should be moving to build a new cadre of leadership, noting, “Many of us have been there for a long time…we believe it is time for us to be handing over this party to a reinvigorated, revitalised group so that they could take the party forward.” Delivering his congress address to the 15th congress in July 2007, Corbin promised:
It is my own aspiration not only to have the new team of leadership cadres identified by the next congress but to hand over to them while still around to give the necessary support. This cadre of highly trained persons must be committed to the task of taking this Party forward, as we retool for the challenges of restoring Guyana to its place of pride and prosperity.
Persons who thought that this sort of talk meant that Corbin actually intended to demit office, and that potential leaders were being identified, would be mistaken.
Over the last thirty months since the 2006 general elections, the PNCR has experienced intense internal turmoil and suffered the resignation of important members. Much of the trouble has arisen out of challenges to Corbin’s leadership, the most frequently named contestants being Mr Vincent Alexander, Dr Aubrey Armstrong, Dr Richard van West Charles.
The challenge by former party vice-chairman Vincent Alexander and his supporters dissolved in disarray. The central committee then injudiciously established a disciplinary tribunal to investigate lapses in the rebels’ behaviour which was certainly vindictive and punitive in purpose. The upshot was that one member, James McAllister, was recalled from the National Assembly; several others − Joseph Hamilton and Dr Dalgleish Joseph and Andrew Hicks − ignored the tribunal; others − Deborah Backer, Ivor Allen, Hamley Case, Chiyedza James, Peter Livingstone and Juliane Gaul − were given reprimands. The damage is still to be felt as many of them, talented professionals, have quietly withdrawn from active involvement in the party’s affairs.
Corbin is believed, almost certainly erroneously, to have reached a risky agreement not to contest the position of leader at the forthcoming congress and to allow Dr Aubrey Armstrong to emerge as leader. But this is highly unlikely. The Barbados-based Armstrong visits Guyana rarely, is familiar to only a few, and does not command any grassroots support. It would be idiotic for Corbin to surrender the leadership to someone who could easily be removed later amidst the usual Congress Place intrigue.
Another aspirant, Dr Richard Van West Charles, has launched a virtual campaign by letter-writing, telephone calls, personal contacts and meetings. These are not enough. Most Guyanese know nothing of his involvement in political life other than his marriage to former President Forbes Burnham’s daughter and an undistinguished tenure as Minister of Health. He has been resident overseas for over 20 years and, quite likely, is unaware of anything other than his own needs.
Robert Corbin has nothing to fear from challengers like these. He seems to be serenely unperturbed even by the top-drawer resignations of Reform component leader Stanley Ming and party chairman Winston Murray and by the loss of talent by the withdrawal of former central committee members who have the potential to give good service and were moderately popular in the party in their own right.
It is a common delusion of political parties which lose elections and the patronage that accompanies political office that the single thing they need to do is to change their leader. This delusion was one of the main reasons why Hamilton Green tried to oust Desmond Hoyte as leader after PNCR lost office in the 1992 general elections. Similarly, when Hoyte led the party to electoral defeats in 1997 and 2001, Raphael Trotman and others openly challenged him for the leadership. This same delusion is now one of the main reasons why Corbin is coming under attack from within his own ranks.
Hoyte had become distrusted and disliked in his party and some were disillusioned with his leadership. But it was always idiotic to suppose that the difficulties were all going to be miraculously dissolved simply by changing leaders. After Hoyte’s death in 2002, far too many PNCR members were under the misapprehension that most, if not all, of the party’s problems and unpopularity would be buried with him. So now it is Corbin’s turn to be the victim of the delusion that PNCR needs only to change its leader for all to be well.
Many who now quietly claim that they always knew Corbin would be a catastrophe as party leader are the same persons who elected him unopposed in 2003, sit side by side with him in the Central Committee and the National Assembly and never openly challenged him for the post when they had the opportunity to do so in 2005 and 2007. Some of the people calling for change realise that the alternatives to Corbin are equally weak or worse. With that knowledge, some hope not to remove him from the leadership but, magically, to transform his personality and improve his performance in the 2011 elections. But 60 year-old people rarely alter their characters fundamentally. Corbin is what Corbin is.
If Corbin is a weak leader, what about the rest of the Central Committee? How often have they and other members of the National Assembly been seen visiting their beleaguered constituents during times of distress such as our frequent floods? Where are their brilliant ideas for reviving the party? It is delusory to think that everything that has gone wrong in the PNCR since 1992 can be blamed on the leader and that he alone is responsible for the party’s problems and unpopularity.
Robert Corbin is not ready to walk away from the PNC and the position that he has craved for 44 years. As Hamilton Green found out in challenging Desmond Hoyte, and as Vincent Alexander and his supporters discovered in challenging Robert Corbin, the job of leader of the PNCR is not there for the taking. It may be that confidence in Corbin’s leadership is rapidly draining away but it will take more than a few newspaper articles and internet blogspots to dislodge him. His leadership might not yet have already passed the point of no return.