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By David Hinds
It is official. Aubrey Norton is now the new leader of the PNC. In what turned out to be a sort of No-Contest, Norton trounced his opponents to win with a whopping 82% of the votes cast. That is quite a hefty margin by any standard. But what was more spectacular was the fact that most of the persons on his slate got on to the executive and won the top offices on that body. Perhaps for the first time, we witnessed “coat tailing” whereby down- slate candidates were able to win on account of the leader’s popularity. It is also worth noting that all the contestants expressed confidence in the process which was presided over by Vincent Alexander. In a political culture where losers have always questioned the fairness of elections, that was a most welcome development.
Norton inherits a broken party—low in confidence and morale. Shaken by the dramatic loss of power by the Coalition of which the PNC is the major player, the party has not been able to recover. And to add salt and pepper to the wound, the PPP has adopted a most aggressive mode of governance that has found the PNC wanting. Not since the early post-independence PPP has an official opposition party been so lame. The handpicked parliamentary leader appeared ill-suited for the job, as he has not been able to win a single victory for his constituents. At no time since being named leader, he has given even a hint of an agenda or a vision for the new dispensation.
But it would be unfair to place all the blame on Mr. Harmon who took such a beating from his constituents that he did not have a ghost of a chance of winning the top prize. The real reason for the state of the party lies in the way in which its leadership managed power during their tenure in office. One may be charitable in pointing to some things which they got right, but in the final analysis there was not anything profound that the Coalition could point to that captured the imagination of its supporters.
The leader governed from the top and solely from the Cabinet. In the process, the party was diminished. All the capable mobilizers were in the Cabinet, so the party was left unattended. Worse, there was not much protest from the non-governmental party leadership or followership. This of course gave the leadership a false sense of security that proved to be fatal. So, when government was snatched away from them, there was no mobilised party to turn to. Never in the history of our politics has a party acted so clumsily in protection of its national space.
What was worse for the PNC was that the leader showed poor leadership largely because he was ill-suited for the moment. He lacked what was needed to hold a difficult Coalition together. He wanted to be a king rather than a president as he sought to dictate to the other parties in the Coalition. The outcome was a misuse of the talent at his disposal in all areas of governance. He lacked the skills to work with those he disliked. But most of all he lacked vision born of a gross misunderstanding of the moment. A decent human being, but a poor leader and team player.
There were several victims of the chaos—party members who were pushed around and pushed out. One such victim was Aubrey Norton. He was kept out of parliament and Cabinet and handed an advisory position which was later taken away by the leader. On the one had the government was denied the services of one of its most effective workers. But the loss to the government turned out to be a massive gain for the party. By not being at the center of the failed government, Norton was not associated with the mess that was created. Despite his own shortcomings, he emerged as the outsider while Harmon was burdened with being the face of failure, defeat and timidity.
The Granger-Harmon post-election PNC appeared in the eyes of supporters as a weak and timid outfit unable and perhaps uninterested in confronting a rampant PPP. As their membership and followership became more militant, the leadership became more and more listless. Into the frame came Aubrey Norton. He struck the right chords which set him apart from his competitors. He reconnected the party to its base-at least emotionally. And as they say, the rest is history.
Now it is time for Norton to clean up the mess he has inherited. He has lots of obstacles and challenges to overcome for as they also say, the party works in mysterious ways. Norton is a consummate party man with a keen eye for tactics and strategy. But he would need a broader outlook to navigate his way forward. He is known as a political streetfighter, but he would need to be more adept at other forms of resistance. He has to be a militant but not a foolish one. He is a combatant, but he needs to make friends and build bridges.
And most of all he has to confront the dilemma of a party grounded in an ethnic community but wanting to appear multi-ethnic. It is a delicate undertaking that the PNC has historically been unable to navigate—how to make your ethnic community happy and empowered without discriminating against and disempowering other ethnic communities. The PNC has often found itself in no-man’s land on this issue. Unfortunately for Norton, the burden of breaking the party out of that no-man’s land on this most profound issue is his. For us that is what will either make or break him. He has to deliver.