MaltaToday’s latest trust ratings: the boat has sailed

The PN must either soldier on under Adrian Delia until the inevitable downfall and begin the painful job of reconstruction to stand a fighting chance by 2022… or it can choose to begin the process immediately

Though our political surveys tend to vary in the details over the years, in some respects they have remained consistent throughout.

One striking example of this concerns Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s performance in approval ratings: time and again, Muscat emerges as significantly more popular, at grassroots level, than the Labour Party as a whole.

While this is excellent news for supporters of that party in general, it also comes with a faint warning. It suggests that, in the present political climate, the Labour Party owes its current electoral advantage uniquely to the persona of its leader. And Muscat has already (repeatedly) indicated that he has no intention of contesting the next general election as leader of the Labour Party.

What this implies is that – even though unassailable for the present – the Labour Party cannot afford to rest on its laurels. It must start preparing itself for a post-Muscat future from now; and it should surely be a cause for concern for the party as a whole, that its majority hinges so pivotally on a leader who will not be there the day after tomorrow.

The same situation also places prospective future Labour leaders in an awkward position. They know they have to start positioning themselves (indeed, it is clear that some have already started) for an inevitable, imminent leadership race: without somehow alienating the core of a voter-base that is clearly enamoured of the man they hope to replace.

This should trigger alarm bells also because it evokes the memory of the Labour Party’s recent historical troubles. Mintoff’s celebrated 1998 ‘revolt’ against Alfred Sant had likewise challenged the average Labour voter’s traditional sense of allegiance: forcing them to choose between a charismatic, much-loved (by Labour) former leader, against a new leader who represented a very different vision.

As history has a tried-and-tested habit of repeating itself, the Labour Party would be wise not to exult too much in the findings of our survey today: though they appear to cement the perception of Labour – and Muscat in particular – enjoying an unassailable lead.

But inevitably, the more dire warning is reserved for the Nationalist Party and its current leader, Adrian Delia. On a national level, it emerges that Muscat is trusted by 54.7%, while Delia is trusted by just 16%.

If this was not bad enough for Delia, it also transpires that only 38.9% of PN voters in 2017 trust him (significantly, 41% trust nobody at all); while, once again confirming the same trend, Muscat continues to be trusted by 95% of Labour voters.

This is a double disadvantage for Delia: for while Muscat grows in popularity, he himself is clearly sinking. As things stand – and on the basis of these raw figures – only 33% would vote for PN with Delia as its leader, if an election were held now.

It would be superfluous to point out that this translates into an enormous – and possibly insurmountable – problem for Delia. Already it is too late to point towards teething problems as ‘new leader’: Delia has occupied his position for a year and a half – and a lot happened, especially, in the early phases, which inevitably set his leadership on a certain course.

The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, in particular, posed and continues to pose a direct challenge to Delia who remains associated – in the minds of many Nationalists – with his earlier (and probably much-regretted) ‘bicca blogger’ remark.

Here, too, the lessons of history should not be ignored. The implications of our latest survey must surely be as visible to the PN itself, as they are painstakingly visible to anyone else. The Nationalist Party appears resigned to its fate, as a ship under the command of a captain facing mutiny. It knows – or must know – that Adrian Delia is running a race he cannot possibly win.

Indeed, the very aim of ‘victory’ seems to have already been discarded. When the European Commission predicted that the PN would lose one of its three MEP seats in the May election, general-secretary Clyde Puli made an appeal to voters ‘not to let that happen’… as though conscious that it is, de facto, already a foregone conclusion.

Once again, this echoes the previous woes of the labour Party, as it spent 15 years struggling to regain its credibility after the 1998 debacle. Like the PN today, Labour resisted the notion of changing the leader, in the face of an unwinnable situation – not even after losing the 2003 referendum and election respectively – and in so doing, merely extended its stay in Opposition by an unnecessary 10 years.

Viewed from this angle, the choice becomes easier for the PN. It must either soldier on under Delia until the inevitable downfall – quite possibly, following next May’s election – and then begin the painful job of reconstruction to stand a fighting chance by 2022… or it can choose to begin the process immediately.

Clearly, however, the one option that no longer remains is to continue hoping for an impossible turnaround. That boat has sailed.