Saying that the main opposition PNCR has lost ground among traditional supporters, former member Andrew Hicks posits that its retooling must focus on consolidating its base at the grassroots in order to regain its foothold in the political arena.
In an interview with Stabroek News, Hicks also said that the party needs to re-examine the process for identifying candidates for leadership, which he believes is due for a change. “I am admitting the power base of the PNCR is diminished and that is why we need a change,” he said, adding that the present structure of the party leadership, headed by Robert Corbin, is not attractive.
Hicks was one of the members of former party vice-chairman Vincent Alexander’s group’s aborted challenge for leadership at the last biennial congress two years ago. Since then, the PNCR has experienced internal turmoil. Several members of Alexander’s campaign group were disciplined and James McAllister was recalled from Parliament. Alexander and other leading members have left the party and more recently it was announced that Winston Murray had given up the post of chairman on a matter of principle though he remained a MP and the party’s shadow finance minister.
The PNCR has faced piercing questions about its stance toward the government and whether it was providing effective leadership of the opposition. Corbin has been accused of taking a soft line on the government and this at one point led to President Bharrat Jagdeo rising to his defence.
Corbin, however, has dismissed the criticism while renewing the party’s push for shared governance. The party is scheduled to hold a congress later this year.
According to Hicks, there is need for more proactive leadership by the PNCR in pursuit of the interest of both its membership as well as the wider society. Noting the challenges currently facing the country and the rest of the world, he said the party needs to take an active approach and work with members and supporters at the grassroots level to help them understand the economic and social changes that would be required to cope. Hicks cited the Ministry of Agriculture’s Grow More Food campaign, which he felt should not be the sole responsibility of the government. He explained that as the sole entity responsible for campaign, it is the government that engaging with supporters. “And we have been losing supporters, in some instances,” he said.
Hicks stressed the need for the party to be more proactive in its engagement of ordinary members, to whom he felt it has a responsibility for education on issues like the global financial crisis and the challenges of food production. “Therefore, through a robust education programme you could inform them of alternatives best suitable for us at this time,” he said. Hicks indicated that there would be mutual benefit to both supporters, who would benefit from its education drive and also the party, which would be socially mobilising people to join and support it. “In effect, you consolidate your political base, which is not happening now.”
Further, in the face of the open scepticism about the party’s waning influence, Hicks said the PNCR should be organising meetings around the issues affecting the people, while projecting itself as a proper government in waiting. However, he lamented that at the moment the perception is the opposite among both the government and the citizenry. In the case of the latter, he said that the rank and file are now discouraging young persons from participating because they do not see the party as a viable alternative to the governing PPP/C. “So an attempt has to be made to re-engineer the party so it could become a competitive institution again and regain the power base,” he declared.
Hicks said the harsh reality for the PNCR is that it lost over 50,000 votes at the last general elections; a result, he contends, that speaks for itself.
He further noted that the party’s performance in Region Ten was further indicative of the doubts about Corbin’s leadership and his failing in consolidating the support base. He noted that traditionally the party garnered more than 75% of the votes in the region, but it failed to do so in 2006. “This was a clear indication that there is a strong disconnection — either in performance or in terms of the value the people in Region 10 attribute to the leadership of Robert Corbin at the helm of the party,” he said.
Hicks recalled Raphael Trotman’s decision to leave the PNCR to cofound the AFC. He explained that while Trotman might have felt himself a credible candidate for the PNCR leadership, Corbin was able to mobilise longstanding party members to consolidate his position. Hicks thought Trotman opted to leave to avoid confrontation, recognising that the campaigning that took place would not enable his success.
Since his election and re-election, Hicks explained, a lot of supporters who openly campaigned for Corbin have privately admitted that they exercised poor judgement in the light of his approach to management of the party’s affairs. Hicks, who said he had not supported Corbin, remained a loyal member of the party nonetheless, until last year when he decided not to renew his membership.
In addition to the erosion of its support, Hicks said the PNCR has also suffered from waning support from the business community. He said while like other political organisations the party had received contributions in the past from members of the business community, several long-time backers have now withdrawn support. He said this too was also reflective of the disenchantment with Corbin’s leadership.
Hicks said the PNCR needs to find a credible replacement for Corbin, sooner rather than later. However, he warned that if it is to be a viable institution again, it cannot rely on a process of competition. He said there should be meaningful engagement on the question of leadership at the level of the executive, which should then be extended to the general membership and perhaps even non members who vote for the party. “This is to bring about a consensus candidate, rather than several candidates, dividing the house,” he explained. He added that once the party is able to demonstrate maturity in the context of its internal elections, it could serve as a catalyst for progress.
He also admitted that unless the decline of the party is addressed, people could shift support to the AFC as an alternative.