Coming opposition leadership changes By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
October 27, 2002

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IT IS quite possible that by early 2004, if not earlier, we could see leadership changes in three of the major opposition parliamentary parties of the Caribbean Community - Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

Changing of the political guards, which traditionally takes a long time in Caribbean politics, is expected first in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.

In Guyana, it would be the choosing of a successor to People's National Congress leader Desmond Hoyte, and for Trinidad and Tobago's United National Congress someone to replace Basdeo Panday.

Both long-standing politicians, they have gone public with their promise to make way for succession.

If Hoyte sticks with his decision - and there remains a big IF, given his reluctance to use his party's biennial congress in August this year to set the stage for his replacement - then his party and the country should know for sure in March 2003.

When he marked his 72 birthday last March, Hoyte said that he did not plan to be in the leadership position of the party on his 73rd birthday in March 2003. That is just some five months away.

No one of public significance, in or out of the PNC, seems to be holding their breath for this to happen as said. Yet, without a leadership change, the party's chances of ever regaining power through the democratic process could only become even more challenging and difficult.

Hoyte's most recent intervention in a crime-plagued climate with his "development plan" (sic) for Buxton, the village very much at the centre of criminal activities and a perceived sanctuary for criminals, could only add to the burden of his leadership.

Letters and commentaries in the local media perhaps reinforce a perception of frustration with Hoyte's leadership capacity to deliver a successful election for the PNC.

Having succeeded the late Forbes Burnham, on his death in 1985, as head of government and PNC leader, Hoyte has already led the party into defeat at three consecutive general elections.

This followed his extended seven-year term as Executive President of Guyana by "winning" the controversial 1985 general election, deemed by international observers to have been "as crooked as barbed wire".

The PNC lost power in 1992 when electoral democracy was restored for the first time since 1968.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, Patrick Manning's People's National Movement is back as it was when it lost power in 1995 - a legitimate, elected government - as compared with the label of an illegitimate, "selected" administration resulting from the 18-18 deadlock produced by the December 2001 election.

The PNM's major challenger for power, the UNC, seems demoralised from the electoral defeat of October 7, having expected, at worst, another 18-18 deadlock.

As if to add to their mood of depression, the UNC supporters have been put on alert by Panday, their 69-year-old leader and former Prime Minister that the party must begin the process of finding his successor.

He wants, he said, to honour a pledge he had made to himself to be out of active electoral and party politics in his 70th year. That is just some seven months away.

On the understanding that Panday would remain as party leader and assume the post of Opposition Leader in Parliament until the party was ready to grant him his wish, the UNC's national executive and parliamentary caucus established a "transition team" to make recommendations to a special general assembly of the party on a successor to the man who has been their leader for the past 24 years under varying party names.

The idea is to give his elected successor ample space and time to stamp his own leadership qualities ahead of a new general election.

The question in relation to Hoyte and Panday is: Who will go first? The potential successors to either is not easy to identify, and moreso in the case of leadership of the PNC/R.

Winston Dookeran, the former Governor of the Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank and a respected academic of some 10 years with the University of the West Indies, is being projected in the local media as a most likely successor. He has appeal across the ethnic frontiers - a critical factor in societies like Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago -and is perceived ideologically as a moderate and with desirable management skills.

But there are other promising candidates, among them former Finance Minister and banker Gerald Yetming, a tough campaign fighter and strategist and former San Fernando West MP and now Senator, Sadiq Baksh, himself a very crafty politician and political organiser.

The successor to Hoyte, PNC leader for the past 17 years, could prove much more problematic for the UNC. A fundamental difference is that Panday seems committed to make way while doubts linger about Hoyte's own preparedness to carry through on what he said last March.

Among his potential successors would be the University of Guyana lecturer Deryck Bernard, Vincent Alexander, deputy registrar of the UG, lawyer Raphael Trotman, former Trade Minister and ex-party chairman Winston Murray, and the party's current chairman and lawyer, Robert Corbin.

Alexander and Trotman were both nominated to challenge Hoyte for the leadership at the party's recent biennial congress but wisely withdrew when they discovered that the incumbent was very much keen on remaining and in no mood for schisms within the party's ranks. Especially, perhaps, in the face of collective leadership solidity in the governing People's Progressive Party (PPP) - whatever internal differences may exist within that structure.

And what of the expected leadership change also in CARICOM's northern sub-region where, having led the Jamaica Labour Party into four successive electoral defeats since 1989, Edward Seaga, now in his 73rd year, seems to have little choice in gracefully taking his exit after some four hectic decades in active parliamentary politics.

Seaga, who has survived various leadership challenges in the past, would most likely seek to manage his going within the context of the expected departure from active politics also by the 69-year-old leader of the governing People's National Party, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson.

But that may not be before the PNP's mid-term, unless Patterson should decide to go before and leave influential cabinet colleagues like Peter Phillips, Portia Simpson-Miller and Omar Davies to battle it out for party leadership.

With the return to the JLP's fold of Bruce Golding, once an heir apparent to Seaga, the guessing game is very much underway whether the man to succeed the incumbent would be Golding or Audley Shaw, currently one of four deputy leaders.

Now with 26 of the 60 seats in parliament, compared with merely 12 when the House of Representatives was dissolved in September for the October 16 election, the JLP clearly has that strong smell of state power with a new election.

How the JLP conducts its politics in and out of parliament with a new leader will be very crucial to defeating the PNP when, with a successor to Patterson, that party seeks a fifth consecutive term.