The PN truly needs a ‘New Way’

It would be futile to deny, however, that the problems facing the PN go far beyond its leadership issues, or even this result in itself

As expected, last weekend’s MEP elections awarded four European Parliamentary seats to Labour, and two to PN. The latter achieved its lowest-ever percentage in a European election, while the gap between the two parties has widened to 42,000.

This is a disastrous result for the PN for many reasons. Delia must be regretting his attempt to brand the election a ‘referendum on abortion’; but, even more keenly, he is probably regretting Joseph Muscat’s more politically astute strategy of branding it a ‘choice between [himself] and Adrian Delia’.

Both these assertions are equally wrong – it was, effectively, a European election. Nonetheless, the PN’s defeat is also a rejection of its campaign strategies, and the umpteenth rejection of the once monolithic Nationalist Party as a serious government-in-waiting.

Yet the writing had been on the wall for some time. Not only did the party’s internal factionalism spill out even further into the open during this campaign, but Delia’s team was openly criticised by some of its own supporters from the unveiling of the very first billboard.

This should have been expected, as the PN chose to fight this electoral battle with strategies that had already been roundly defeated in 2017. Hence the disillusionment: the point of Adrian Delia’s surprise win in the PN leadership race was precisely because he had promised to deliver a ‘New Way’. This, he has evidently failed to do.

Inauspiciously, Delia’s ‘Septem Horribilis’ – the week in which his leadership qualities were tested electorally for the first time - is expected to be further worsened by the local council elections result: yet another occasion for Adrian Delia’s detractors to sharpen their long knives.

Under the circumstances, it is the immediate reaction of anybody witnessing the PN’s result in this week’s EP elections to expect the resignation of its leader. Calls were duly made, but Adrian Delia has decided to stay on despite advice from other, less committed, quarters.

There is no proviso in the PN statute that compels him to do otherwise. As such, his decision must be accepted. Delia will not voluntarily resign.

What remains to be seen is how the Nationalist Party will respond to this state of affairs.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It would be futile to deny, however, that the problems facing the PN go far beyond its leadership issues, or even this result in itself. Delia may yet be persuaded to step down, and could face a vote of confidence in the council. But this, in itself, will not deliver the PN from the situation it now finds itself in.

We have two significant, visible factions inside the PN, one nominally ‘led’ by those who still rally behind former leader Simon Busuttil’s banner of ‘good governance’; and the other aligning itself with Delia’s proposed ‘New Way’.

Certainly, the re-election of incumbents Roberta Metsola and David Casa underlines the resilience of the former. It would be unwise to interpret their success solely as a ‘two-fingered salute’ to the Delia faction – as Jason Azzopardi has suggested (more evidence of the increasingly public nature of the fight). Not all the combined 50,000 who voted for Metsola and Casa can be ‘claimed’ by either side. One cannot discount that they were elected also on the strength of their personal campaigns, or that they were simply preferred to other candidates for other reasons.

Nonetheless, it is an open secret that Delia backed Frank Psaila for the second seat. The fact that he failed to convince the electorate must be added to his political failures in this election.

But this takes the PN no closer to a solution. The fact remains that neither faction has the strength and guaranteed support needed to take full control of the party: not unless someone can bridge both factions – which, at this stage, appears unlikely.

Yet something must be done to iron out an internal problem that has now dragged on far too long. Delia himself hinted at the reason in his concession speech. It is important to have a strong Opposition for the sake of the country… not just for the Opposition party.

In this current state, however, the PN will remain Malta’s largest second party, but without ever being significant enough to take government.

It will remain, like it was destined to be under Simon Busuttil, a strong minority party uninterested in coalition-building (especially now that third parties have failed to gain traction). And unless it also discovers new issues and areas from which to assemble a truly new political platform… it will be condemned forever to a minority-party status.

If the PN wants to resign itself to this status – pursuing a simply “anti-Labour” ethos, unable to resolve its internal struggle between social liberalism and ultra-conservatism, etc. – it will enjoy a long time in Opposition.

Soul-searching and head-rolling often go hand in hand in politics. But the PN’s fate is sealed. Unless it effects a turnaround in spirit, ethos and rediscovers its raison d’être, the party will be doomed to fade into oblivion.

Nor can a new leader just expect ‘business as usual’ in the PN after this result. If the PN wishes to reinvent itself, it must truly discover a ‘new way’.