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Friday was nomination day for the various leadership positions and the executive of the PNC. Voting would take place at the eagerly awaited bi-annual congress of the party slated for December 11. This year’s congress comes at a pivotal time for the PNC and the country at large. It is the first congress since the party as part of a larger coalition lost power in a highly controversial election. The congress will also witness a transition of power from one leader to the other. Thirdly, the congress comes at a time when the party’s capacity to mount a sustained opposition to the PPP is being questioned by its own supporters. Fourthly, the congress is going to take place against the backdrop of a rank and file which has become more race-conscious on account of the perception that the PPP is governing in racially divisive ways. Finally, for the first time there is a party congress that takes place in the full glare of the country.
The PNC went into government as part of a Coalition in 2015 but five years later it left government as a demoralised party. Smarting from charges of electoral malpractice and being victim of Regime Change, the party has not been itself these last fifteen months. Many leaders have questioned the leadership of the party and government by the incumbent leader and former president, David Granger. Most of the charges are justified as Granger’s curious mix of aloofness and one-manism has been at the core of the Coalition’s missteps. In the end the lack of confidence in his leadership forced him to abandon any lingering thoughts of fighting to retain the leadership.
The internal situation of the party in the wake of the electoral loss has vastly affected its ability to serve as a counterbalance to the PPP. Saddled with an inexperienced cadre of parliamentarians, thanks to Granger’s controversial decision to omit senior party members from serving in the National Assembly, the party has come to be seen as a toothless entity. The handpicked Leader of the Opposition, Joe Harmon, has in the eyes of supporters come to personify the malaise. Not the most charismatic leader, he has not been able to inspire the rank and file to view the party as the vehicle to stop the government from dominating the country.
It is against that background that Aubrey Norton has emerged as the man to lead the party out of the rut. An outspoken and at times abrasive leader, he has been at odds with all of the party leaders since Desmond Hoyte. Although he worked beyond the call of duty at the 2015 election, he was not appointed to Cabinet or the National Assembly by Granger. This decision may come back to haunt the pro-Granger forces at the election as Norton’s absence from the inner circles during the tenure in government means that he is not seen as the consummate insider.
While he is the preferred candidate of the rank and file of the party, it is not a done deal for him. The leader is chosen by delegates and if the Robert Corbin and Hamilton Green experiences are anything to go by, there is still a lingering hesitancy to entrust the maximum leader’s position to those seen as militants. Although Corbin was elected, he was not accorded the same kind of respect as previous leaders. In the end, if the delegates accept the argument that the times demand a courageous, no-nonsense leader, Norton would be unstoppable.
The other serious candidate to date, Joe Harmon, seems to enjoy the support of the party insiders who tend to be pro-Granger. The mantle of Granger’s preferred candidate cuts both ways. On the one hand the official party is in his corner, but on the other hand he has to fetch Granger’s baggage. His preference for a non-confrontational stance towards the PPP government may also work against him. Harmon also as to carry the tag of the outsider who did not grow up in the party. However, he has sought to separate himself from Norton’s militancy and appeal to the party’s moderate instincts. If he does get over the finishing line, it would be because of that approach.
Finally, Dr. Richard Van West-Charles who has pedigree on his side. While not as charismatic as Norton, he is very thoughtful. Unlike the other two candidates he is not as known in party circles as an activist. His short migration from the party to the AFC is being exploited by his opponents. Yet he appears to be the level head in the race. And in this time of stress within the party, he may well emerge as the consensus candidate.
There is still the wild card—Volda Lawrence. She has not showed an inclination to join the race. But if she does, the nature of the contest would be transformed. She has the support of the women and the young urban members– the constituencies that combined to sweep her to the chairmanship over Harmon at the last congress. For whatever reasons, she has not signaled her intention to contest. Time will tell, but whether she runs or not the race appears to be wide open.