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PN: Staying Together For The Kids?

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PN’s election of a new leader this month has left the party trying to paper over a very visible split among its ranks. This split will likely shape the next decade of Maltese politics.  

Adrian Delia now stands firmly in the driving seat of the Nationalist Party pitching a “Latin” vision to the electorate. The initiative now lies in the hands of the objectors: the people that supported anyone but Delia in the run up to 17th September.

The objectors are a diverse group with different ideological outlooks, some of whom have already started coming around. This includes liberals and conservatives, party insiders and voters with the faintest of PN leanings, people like MPs Jason Azzopardi and Karol Aquilina, local councillor Michael Briguglio and commentator Manuel Delia.

On my part, I firmly object to Delia ever becoming Prime Minister. The way that he deals with allegations levelled against him by the press and answers legitimate questions about his future plans shows he is fundamentally inconsistent with my vision for a transparent and fair state. His “Latin” vision contradicts the push for an open society.

A home in turmoil

Delia was elected on 17th September with close to 7,800 votes. He is expected to take a seat in Parliament following the 3 October by election, triggered after ally Jean Pierre Debono relinquished his seat. Once elected, Delia will be the third most popular sitting PN MP by vote count, after Simon Busuttil and Beppe Fenech Adami who obtained around 20,000 votes and over 8,000 votes at the 3rd June elections respectively.

By year end, the party intends to elect new deputy leaders and a new administrative and executive committee. Reports suggest that Delia does not have a working majority within the PN parliamentary group. Their hostility was very thinly veiled in the week following the leadership primaries: All MPs that were elected to Parliament following a by-election refused to give up their seat. So did the rest of the MPs who were approached. The impasse ended when Jean Pierre Debono fell on his sword.

The result of the first round of the primaries, where Delia obtained a relative majority following a poll among party councillors, would also indicate that he might not have a working majority for a while in the General Council (being the forum where all party councillors meet). This situation should change very soon as councillors fall in line behind a message of party unity.

Delia however enjoys the support the party’s active membership, as the 17th September result shows.

The options

Objectors have three strategic options before them that will determine the future of Malta’s political landscape: Abstain, Contain/Co-opt (with an Attack Option) or Clean Break.  

Option 1. Abstain

The first option for the objectors is to take a five-year sabbatical and wait for the ‘complicated’ people to do the dirty job and turn down the thumb on Delia’s ‘revolution of the mind’ at the polls.  

Many activists in the party seem to have taken this option. Surgeon and former PN candidate Kevin Cassar seems to have opted for this course of action.

Activists resolving to abstain are unhappy at the turn things have taken and have determined that the electoral promise of Delia will inevitably fail at the polls. Their thinking goes that the doors of the party will be open again in five years’ time. In the meantime, it would be beneficial for them to take time off and build their career and contacts.

The risk with this strategy is that it hands over the initiative entirely to Delia. As candidate for Prime Minister, Delia might manage to connect with enough voters to scrape an unlikely victory at the next general election, like he managed to do at the leadership primaries.

Let’s not forget for a moment that Delia’s highly combative and complicated speaking style, centred on rambling speeches peppered with Italianate words that have absolutely no meaning (he even used the word “trapass” when speaking in English to Lovin Malta last week) goes down very well with a segment of the electorate that seems to prize showmanship over ideas and substance.

Abstaining will also not work for sitting MPs and objectors serving on local councils on PN’s behalf. They cannot simply go on holiday, having a constituency to represent.

The option probably works for many pale-blue voters that have been flocking to the comment boards of various web sites saying they will not vote at the next election or will vote PD.

Option 2. Contain/Co-opt

This is the strategy that seems to be attracting consensus at this moment within the party ranks and is the strategy that seems to be endorsed by the likes of Manuel Delia and Michael Briguglio.

The approach is predicated on the twin assumptions that trying to influence change from within is the most efficient effort and that voters have a default preference for a two-party system.

This strategic approach is based on two sub-sets “Contain” and “Co-opt” – somewhat of a carrot and stick approach.

As part of “Contain”, the objectors would field or support preferred candidates for the deputy leadership, party executive and administrative council in the hope of electing enough individuals that will stem any potential damage that may be unleashed by Storm Delia. 

The “Co-opt” subset is the carrot at the end of the stick.  Praise where praise is due. Cajole the leader into doing the right thing. There is very little to praise so far but Briguglio again has tried the “Co-opt” end of the strategy by describing Delia’s interview with Lovin Malta as “fresh”.

There is merit in this strategy: It recognises that the Nationalist Party remains an electoral force that garnered 100,000 votes at the last election and has prized assets in the shape of an efficient yet antiquated electoral machine which includes an established media house.  

However, the proponents of this strategy seem to be underestimating the momentum of Delia. The chances of electing high-profile candidates to the role of deputy leader, for example, are very slim at best.

If the objectors succeed at electing a deputy leader of their ilk, that person will have a really tough time of having to defend and promote the objector cause in a highly hostile internal environment.

To the outside, the party’s message will look confused and garbled. The objectors will be attacked internally and externally as wanting to drive the Nationalist Party from the back seat.

In addition, because of the way Malta’s party system functions, the Contain/Co-opt strategy will eventually have to be translated to cheerleading (however half-heartedly) Delia as Malta’s future Prime Minister. Objectors like Briguglio himself will have to campaign for a PN government in 2022, whether he likes the prospect of Delia as Prime Minister or not.

If the Contain/Co-opt approach is at least partially successful in containing Delia, perhaps by electing a deputy leader visibly opposed to Delia, then voters who might otherwise resolve to desert PN will be motivated to vote tactically at the next general election for candidates that best represent them.  For example in a hypothetical scenario where Briguglio and Delia were to contest the same election on the same district, such voters would vote Briguglio over Delia.

This will ultimately play into Delia’s hands, whether as strengthened opposition leader or new Prime Minister. Every vote for PN, no matter how well-intentioned, is a vote for Delia.

There is recent historical precedent that a Contain/Co-opt strategy backfires at this level. I will mention three: Donald Trump, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

Donald Trump was an outsider and anti-establishment figure that irked many in the Republican Party (and still does). The party decided to adopt a ‘Contain/Co-opt’ strategy after Trump secured the nomination to the election. This strategic mistake was a key factor that gave us all President Trump, a highly unpredictable leader playing war games against North Korea and Iran.

Corbyn is experiencing similar success yet from the opposition benches. His election as party leader in 2015 was welcomed by open hostility among the parliamentary group. Corbyn even managed to survive a second leadership election in 2016 after a rebellion organised by the parliamentary group.  

The Blairite faction of the party tried to adopt the ‘Contain/Co-opt’ strategy by adopting a mix of hostile action and support.  

Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, was elected by the Blairite faction of the party, only to be blamed as a schemer undermining Labour’s message whenever Corbyn’s hard-left message was not doing well at the polls.

The factions were forced to unite during the 2017 elections. The Blairite faction campaigned half-heartedly for a Labour government and managed to rally some Blairite support for the idea of a Labour (as opposed to a Corbyn) government.

This initiative, coupled with a strong hard-left grassroots movement that backed Corbyn right from the start of his leadership and a Conservative campaign that was the biggest ‘shoot-your-own-foot’ exercise in history, led to an unexpectedly positive result for Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn now has momentum and stands on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. Hardly the outcome that the Blairites hoped for back in 2015.

Brexit is yet another story of failed ‘Contain/Co-opt’ approach.

The Conservative party has been split over Europe since the time of Thatcher. Each Conservative government since the 80s was eventually brought down by infighting and dramatic rebellions over Europe.

Cameron, a pro-Europe politician, resolved to adopt a ‘Contain/Co-opt’ approach when he became leader of the Conservative Party. He promised a referendum on Europe. By doing so, the ire of the Brexiteers was placated and converted into support that delivered the first Tory relative majority after three consecutive defeats. The rest, as we know it, is history.

Therefore the weight of recent historical precedent is against the Contain/Co-opt strategy and is a highly damaging strategy in the long run. By choosing this strategy, the objectors are simply kicking the can down the road.

…. and attack?

The only way that a Contain/Co-opt strategy might work is if it is accompanied by a successful implementation of a counter-attack as a third step of the strategy that would displace Adrian Delia as leader of the party.

Objectors may stage a coup following the 2019 MEP elections, if Delia fails to succeed at improving the PN’s record at the 2014 elections.

A coup could come from different places but would likely come in the form of a no confidence vote by the PN parliamentary group.

This strategic option would lead to a metaphorical bloodbath within PN with the Delia faction fighting tooth and nail to retain its hold on power, arguing that the ‘revolution of the mind’ is only half way through.  

Delia seems to be aware that a poor showing at the MEP elections may cost his job. When asked by Lovin Malta whether he would resign if the MEP results turn out to be underwhelming, he replied that he wanted to serve his entire term until the next general election.

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Option 3. Clean break

The third option is clean break:  formalising the already existing split within the party and going different ways. I think this is the only logical solution, for so long as Delia remains leader of the Nationalist Party.

A clean break is traumatic and involves a great deal of emotional distress, not least for some objectors who have been militating within the party since their teenage years. There is great resistance to go down this route because of the powerful emotional appeal of the party image, its symbols and its recent past. Splitting would mean handing all of this to the history books.

Clean break is a costly option. The defecting faction would hand over control of the PN electoral machine to the Delia faction. The objectors defecting from the PN would need to spend considerable time and money building a new machine capable of obtaining at least 40,000 votes at the next election if it is to stand any hope of electing any candidate on its own steam.

Any new party would also be up against two very well established and well-rooted political networks. This points to a problem that economists explain as network effects.

Imagine you are starting a third mobile phone company, to operate in a market of two other mobile phone companies. You would need to spend money on rolling out infrastructure and you would also need to splash on a great marketing campaign that will attract subscribers.  

The total cost is divided by the number of new subscribers to come up with an acquisition cost. It has been shown that it is very expensive for new networks to build up a base. However, it steadily becomes cheaper each time a new member joins the network.

The same logic applies largely to new political parties.

Does this mean that any new party is doomed?

No, the recent few years in European politics have shown that organised pitches to votes can be highly successful. This success has recently followed an economic or other systemic crisis. Italy returned Forza Italia, an upstart party, in the 1990s after Tangentopoli brought down the entire system.  In Spain, two new parties have been returned to the Spanish assembly following the great recession. One of them is now in coalition with the centre-right Partido Popular. In France, La Republique en Marche, has virtually wiped out the Socialists and reduced the Republicans to a rump.

Success can also be organic. Perhaps the best example of successful third parties that have grown organically over time is Scotland where the Scottish National party (SNP) spent years building up its case for independence then to explode in support when Scotland started electing its own assembly. SNP managed to unseat Labour as the largest party and in the 2015 general election elected all seats in Scotland (except one) to Westminster. The party has since experienced a dip in support, largely because of its insistence on a second Scottish independence referendum and poor economic performance in Scotland.

Malta’s recent history with third party efforts is abysmal. The most recent political party is Alternattiva which only managed a personal best of 1.8% at the 2013 elections. This leads the objectors within the PN to think that any new third party is doomed to fail and spend life in the “desert”, as Briguglio puts it.

Michael Briguglio, who seems to have come to the conclusion that the Maltese political mindset only thinks of two options at a time, is seemingly qualified to speak about third-party efforts, having led Alternattiva between 2009 and 2013.

However, this assessment belies the fact that Alternattiva’s narrow focus reflects a trend where green ideology has so far largely failed to gain any sort of traction at the polls across Europe. The German green party classified 6th during last Sunday’s election with nearly 9% of the vote, compared with nearly 13% of right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland, a political start-up.

In addition, a look through history will show that third parties in Malta did have success. Just look uphill from Pieta’ in Partit Laburista’s direction.  In fact, PL is the product of a split within Boffa’s Labour Party in 1949.  Mintoff established the Malta Labour Party and Boffa established the Worker’s Party. It was the Worker’s Party that had initial success only to decline in the 1950s.  Mintoff enjoyed steady growth and the party lives on until this day.  

Many party insiders are currently also saying that the biggest threat for a third party is Malta’s electoral system. This is not true. Ireland has Malta’s exact same electoral system and has been returning multiple parties to parliament for decades. Coalition governments have been the order of the day since 1989.

Another argument brought forward by party insiders against a new party is that a new party would only split the PN vote and would hand Labour the keys to government for another 10-15 years.

This argument is mistaken because it assumes that Labour’s vote is somewhat more solid than PN’s and that any new party would be a carbon copy of PN, a sort of PN 2.0.

Labour has worked very hard prior to the 2013 election to secure a thumping majority in the country. It strengthened its position in its heartland and made significant inroads in PN strongholds.

Any new party that becomes a PN 2.0 would be doomed to failure. The party’s position has been rejected at the polls since 2010. Any new party would need to pitch to objectors, the independent minded and a significant chunk of the Maltese electorate that votes Labour for its competence in managing the economy and bind all these people behind a positive vision of clean, competent government.

The success of a political party depends on its organisation and credibility. If a new third party is well organised, well funded and is electorally credible (that is, capable of credibly offering an alternative government), then the chances of its success are higher.  Like any start-up however, the risk remains incredibly high.

The clearest advantage with this option remains the fact that any new party would instantly be freed of internal conflict and will be capable of speaking clearly, without having to dilute its message or look inconsistent in the eye of voters.  

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And Simon Busuttil?

Simon Busuttil is probably one of the reasons why the objectors have not yet resolved to formalise the split from the Nationalist Party. His popularity among voters is probably somewhat dented following the 3rd June result although it appears that he still commands a degree of loyalty within the Parliamentary group, if probably somewhat diminished.

Busuttil seems to have opted for a senatorial role. Having broken with recent PN precedent and not resigned from his role as Leader of the Opposition and his seat in Parliament when he resigned from the leadership of the party, Simon Busuttil resolved to “keep on fighting” against corruption in a speech delivered on 16th September. It was clear by then that Delia was on course to secure victory at the primaries.

Conscious of his leadership role and the potential fallout if he publicly criticised Delia, Busuttil seems to have opted for a Contain/Co-opt strategy in these initial phases of Delia’s leadership.

Busuttil reminded Delia in a tweet on the night of his victory that he now had the responsibility of what was started. In saying so, Busuttil tried to set the standard for Delia and the objectors to measure progress against.

Busuttil also tellingly opted to give “space” to Delia at the annual PN independence activities, by not attending the first mass meeting addressed by Adrian Delia. Yet, Busuttil is opting not to give the same space to Delia in Parliament, as he did not resign his seat.

This signals that Busuttil will not descend in the trenches of party politics, but will remain vigilant from the parliamentary benches.  

His actions will probably inspire what the objectors will do next. Any sign of displeasure by Busuttil may mark a turn of events.

The objectors should note however that Simon Busuttil is part of the PN’s furniture and recent history. It is very unlikely that Simon Busuttil will lead any split within the PN.  

This is why the objectors – most notably the vocal objectors as Karol Aquilina, Jason Azzopardi, Michael Briguglio and Manuel Delia – hold the keys to the future.

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Relationship status:  It’s complicated

The PN’s crisis can be compared to a relationship in a very public breakdown. Talk to any couple facing breakdown and they will tell you the options they face are equally scary:  stay or break-up.

In the end, any person who went through break-up will agree that break-up is the realistic and better option, despite the trauma it entails. It is useless holding on to memories in the false hope things will improve.  

People make history (whether in their family or in their country) because of a shared vision, not because of emotional attachment to symbols of the past.

What Karol Aquilina, Jason Azzopardi, Michael Briguglio, Manuel Delia and the other objectors will do next will shape the course of Malta’s political history for the coming years.

Tag someone who can’t stop talking about PN.

READ NEXT: Adrian Met Joseph And This Is What Went Down

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