Norton’s “end of Maximum Leader” declaration

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As we go to press the Peoples National Congress-Reform (PNC-R) is in the process of electing a new leader. The long-awaited congress of one of Guyana’s two largest parties has gripped the attention of not just the party’s faithful, but the country at large. Never before in Guyana’s modern political history has the internal election of a party been so closely watched. This is due to a combination of factors including the fact that the outgoing leader for all intents was deposed. While Mr. Granger would strenuously argue that he left at his own will, the circumstances of his departure suggest otherwise. Significantly, he was not a yesterday’s event, having departed earlier this week for medical check-up in Cuba.

So, what about the new leader? In the end, it was a three-way race among Aubrey Norton, Richard Van West-Charles and Joseph Harmon. By the time you read this editorial, the winner should be known. What is certain is that regardless of who has prevailed, the PNC would not be same party. At a party event at Agricola on Thursday, Norton declared that the age of maximum leadership in the party is over. It was perhaps the most significant statement made in the relatively short but brisk campaign. Interestingly, Norton prefaced his statement with an admittance that in the final analysis the party’s founder-leader, the iconic Forbes Burnham, had been a maximum leader. He justified Burnham’s role in that regard by citing his tremendous political skills and messianic hold on the party. While he did not actually say it, he implied that those who followed Burnham as leader led the party in the same vein.

While some may quibble over Norton’s observation, as Dr. Richard Van West Charles did, the fact is that he is correct. Burnham was a maximum leader in an age of maximum leadership in the post-colonial world. From Africa to Asia to Latin America to our Caribbean, the model of the charismatic maximum leader was more the rule than the exception. Hence Norton’s assessment was not a criticism of Burnham, but a signal that the leadership model has outlived its usefulness. In fact, it was the maximum leadership style of the outgoing leader that brought the PNC to the point where a change of leadership became necessary. It was clear that Mr. Granger’s “one-man show” was ill-suited for these times and was responsible among other things for the Coalition’s removal from office and the ensuing crisis in the party. For the record, Van West-Charles endorsed Norton’s declaration.

So, is the age of the maximum leader really over? This publication is not so sure of its final demise as a political construct just yet. What we do know is that the new party leader would not be allowed to carry on a one-man show. That would be enough to erode the foundation of the maximum leader. Mr. Norton went into the race as the front-runner. He has over the weeks of the campaign developed a very passionate following in and out of the party. Of the three candidates for leader, he is the one that would be more positioned to be a potential maximum leader. Hence it is significant that the declaration came from him. One is not too sure where Mr. Harmon stands on the matter, but it would be difficult to envisage him advocating otherwise.

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The truth of the matter is that Mr. Granger took the maximum leadership too far. As party leader, head of the APNU and the APNY+AFC Coalition coupled with being Head of State and government, he possessed more institutional power than any other party-leader, including Burnham. And he used that power to concentrate decision making largely in his own hands. It was a fatal error that cost the coalition the government and ultimately led to the dissolution of the APNU. The final blow was when Granger used that power to sideline senior members of the PNC from participation as members of parliament and worse to choose the representative of APNU partner, the WPA., to sit in parliament.

In the end, Granger leaves office as the most reviled leader of the PNC largely because he is perceived as an out of place maximum leader. It was his gross over-reach that occasioned Norton’s declaration–one which in essence captures the mood of the party’s rank and file and the wider base. There has in effect been a revolution against maximum leadership that swept Granger away. The new PNC leader would have a hard time swimming against that tide. We suspect that the new leader would be forced to govern more as a co-leader than as the “Big Man.” Even if he has a majority of his supporters on the Central Executive Committee, it would be difficult to use the big stick.

This publication thinks that this is a good sign. Whether other parties, especially the PPP, follow suit is left to be seen. Guyana and the Caribbean have moved on. Six decades after independence the limitations of the model have been exposed and it has been found wanting as a necessary tool of governance in the contemporary world. There will always be the notion of the wise and impactful leader and the ensuing follow-the-leader syndrome. But the leader’s big stick which Mr. Granger used to negative consequential effect would be subdued. It is the Mighty Sparrow’s “mango root”—the followers’ big stick that is more likely to prevail. We shall be watching.



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