Following the passing of the first rank of post-Independence leaders of our two major parties, it has not always been a foregone conclusion as to who should succeed them. Here we are at crossroads again – and we have had a few of those in more recent times – where both of our primary political entities will be choosing a new head in one category or another. In the case of the PNCR, it will be the chairman, a position currently held by Minister of Legal Affairs and Attorney General Basil Williams, while where the PPP is concerned, it will in due course be a presidential candidate, now that a third term for Mr Bharrat Jagdeo has been ruled out by the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The PNCR case is an interesting one. In a contest where Mr Williams, the incumbent, and First Vice-Chairperson Volda Lawrence are in contention, there has been a challenge from a party outsider in the form of Mr Joseph Harmon, the Minister of State in the Ministry of the Presidency. The leadership of the party is held by President David Granger himself, and the Minister shares a similar army background. Mr Harmon is not an isolated example of former military personnel filling posts in the government and state bureaucracy; it is a phenomenon which has attracted commentary before.
As we reported recently, Mr Harmon has embarked on a social media campaign in support of his quest for the chairmanship, and at least one flyer promoting his candidacy is in circulation. Our report also made reference to messages on Facebook about Mr Harmon’s political career, including his contribution to the party’s campaign efforts in the 2011 and 2015 elections, and his progress since venturing into party politics when he was only 14 years old.
What, one wonders, would tempt Mr Harmon, who after all holds a very powerful position in government, to enter the fray for the PNCR chairmanship against two party heavyweights like Ms Lawrence and Mr Williams? It has to be remembered that under the Constitution the President is not answerable to a party for the conduct of state affairs; the only control it exercises over him or her, is its power to select the presidential candidate. After that, a President can ignore his or her party if so desired. In the last term of his presidency, Mr Jagdeo, for example, did precisely that.
So could it be that we are looking further down the road to the 2020 elections, and Mr Harmon harbours grander ambitions than merely heading the Ministry of the Presidency? If that were so, he would need to position himself within the party early in order to build up support, before he could have any reasonable expectation of being selected as a presidential candidate. In any event, such a move would presumably have to be taken with the concurrence of the current President, who in those circumstances would effectively be anointing his successor. This would be to assume, of course, it was not directed at ensuring Mr Granger’s own nomination as the party’s presidential candidate in pursuit of a second term, a possibility which cannot be dismissed.
Alternatively, or in addition thereto, the President himself could be seeking greater leverage within the inner decision-making body of the party, the Central Executive Committee, which unsurprisingly is dominated by traditional PNCR members. It may be that he would like to ensure the survival of his novel approach to governing, involving what the public perceives as a certain partiality to ex-army personnel in particular, but also encompassing former security service members in general.
It has to be noted that the PNCR Congress is a biennial affair, so if Mr Harmon for whatever reason wants the chairmanship, it makes sense to seek it now; the next one will fall due in 2020.
It might also be noted that if, by chance, Mr Granger does not want to seek a second term, and if Mr Harmon fails to become Chairman of the PNCR (and even if he does accede to the chairmanship), the matter of nominations for the party’s presidential candidate will arise. Such a situation might tempt various individuals from within the ranks of the PNCR to put themselves forward.
The Stabroek News report quotes party insiders as saying that Mr Harmon will not find it easy making inroads into the support which Ms Lawrence and Mr Williams enjoy; both of the latter have come up through the party and are well known by the rank and file, and do not need Facebook pages to give themselves recognition. In addition, one informant cited Ms Lawrence’s support from women; she heads the women’s arm of the party. Both of them, it was said, had loyal supporters. Party insiders will have a much better idea of what the odds in this election are; for everyone else, they will have to wait and see whether social media are really a match for old-style face-to-face contacts and long-term membership.
The choice in the PPP is a great deal more complicated, and it is probably much too early for those outside the walls of Freedom House to have any realistic idea of how alliances will evolve inside. Former President Bharrat Jagdeo told reporters following the announcement of the CCJ decision on the third term that as General Secretary he would continue to lead the PPP into the 2020 elections, and would ensure that he had a formal role should his party win the polls.
He would not be drawn on what that formal role would consist of, although he enlarged on the presidential and economic experience he had to offer. It is, as already said, much too soon to gauge exactly what is going to happen, although in view of the period when Mr Donald Ramotar was president, the public does wonder whether even if Mr Jagdeo does not intend to institute a Putin-Medvedev style arrangement after 2020, he still might function as an éminence grise.
Various commentators have alluded to at least one split in the PPP, reflecting Jagdeo people on the one side, and what are called the ‘old guard’, or the Jaganites who represent the traditional values of the party, on the other. Again, which figures will emerge to put themselves in contention as presidential candidates, and how that will dovetail with Mr Jagdeo’s plans, or whether there will be friction is not something which the average bookie would take a bet on just yet.