Aubrey Norton, newly elected leader of the PNCR is only ‘odd’ in the sense that he survived at or near the leadership of the PNCR for near thirty years, despite falling out with all the leaders under whom he served – Desmond Hoyte, Robert Corbin and David Granger. I know of no one else in Guyana’s politics who has managed such a feat. Because of the opacity of the PNCR’s politics, about which I remarked last week, the reasons for Mr. Norton’s failure to sustain the support of PNCR’s leaders are not known. The only certainty appears to be that he fought for his positions, made no compromises, prepared himself for the hits and took them courageously on the chin.
But Mr. Norton will soon learn that compromise is necessary for successful leadership. Known principally for his militant and aggressive anti-PPP postures, Guyana will continue to face political gridlock if leadership does not induce in Mr. Norton a more expansive vision. If he is creative enough, he will use his undoubted skills to negotiate concessions with sufficient finesse to make them palatable to the PPP and PNCR, without sacrificing principles. The potential is there. Many years ago, at his suggestion as General Secretary, the PPP and PNCR executives met together twice at their respective headquarters at Congress Place and Freedom House. It never happened before or after.
After the euphoria, hard questions remain. How does Mr. Norton plan to overcome the limitation on the capacity of the PNCR to win elections when it obtains only 40 – 42 percent of the votes in free and fair elections? Or how does he plan to reduce the PPP to below 50 percent? More immediately, how does he restore respect for the PNCR after the rejection of the No Confidence Motion and the attempted rigging of the elections? How does he retain the support of the African Guyanese middle class and of Mixed ancestry, when Robert Corbin could not? Promises for inclusive leadership, broadening the base, or exposing PPP’s alleged corruption, marginalization and discrimination, and now the rigging of elections, have been promised before. They have failed. The only policy that has not been tried is one that Mr. Norton supported in the late 1980s and early 1990s – shared governance.
The PNCR, like the PPP, has undergone significant changes. The PNCR’s founder, Forbes Burnham, created a movement dedicated to achieving and sustaining personal and political power, by any means necessary. His successor, Desmond Hoyte, sought to maintain PNCR power in the worst rigged elections in Guyana’s history in 1985. But he commenced Guyana’s economic recovery programme, albeit within the existing authoritarian structures, opened the economy and gave permission for SN to be established. With the restoration of democracy in 1992 and the end of PNCR rule, Hoyte’s turned his innovative and modernizing efforts to the PNCR. He discarded his feared deputy, Hamilton Green, decimated the left wing and brought in or promoted a wave of new leaders. Aubrey Norton was part of this wave.
But there were limits. After 1992, the animus against the PPP intensified to the level of anti-PPP hysteria, underlined by street violence, political violence and criminal violence. At the end of the 2002 post-election disturbances, Hoyte saw the futility of this approach and sat down with now VP, then President Jagdeo, to talk. The progress was short-lived. But in 2002, prompted by the failure of street violence of the past decade and internal PNCR pressures, he came out in support of shared governance, which he had resisted for years. For Desmond Hoyte, in 2002, to sit down and talk with his old nemesis, the PPP, and to embrace shared governance with it, could have been transformative. Norton witnessed all of this. Does he have anything new?
When Robert Corbin took over in 2003, Hoyte’s trajectory, which the PPP had failed to capitalize on, continued. But the two agreements between the PPP and PNCR under Corbin’s leadership also failed, not due to Corbin’s fault. The PPP just wasn’t, and likely still isn’t, ready. Then came the criminal terrorism emanating from Buxton that took centre stage and lasted until 2008. By 2011 PPP’s supporters had become jaded. Uninspired, they returned their party with a minority. Instead of seeking a coalition with the PNCR or AFC and thereby delinking one from the other, as any rational party anywhere in the world would do, the PPP foolishly decided to do battle on its own. It required no political acumen to predict the inevitable consequence. At the 2015 elections the APNU+AFC coalition inspired great hope with its proposals for constitutional reform, which would have ensured a permanent role for itself in governance. But it dropped, lost the elections and damaged its credibility along the way. It gave the opportunity to the PPP to capitalize on the oil economy.
This is the scenario that faces Aubrey Norton. He can rely on his anti-PPP militancy and wait for the inevitable, unproductive, results. In ten years or less, Guyana’s politics will be transformed by oil and the old shibboleths will fall away. Mr. Norton doesn’t have much time but he has the capacity and internal support to face his and his party’s existing and future challenges. But in watching his back, he needs to ask the following questions: Are the forces that influenced Hoyte’s change of posture in 2002 still active? If so, will they seek to influence Norton, or will they undermine him, as they did to Corbin? I wish him luck, and so should all Guyanese.