Gazing into the future

The PN has already been dismembered by wedge issues like gay marriage and adoptions; without a socially liberal orientation it will be condemned to stay as a large minority party

The PN surely did not need the wisdom of its former secretary-general to gaze into a crystal ball to find out about its chances at the next general election.

Joe Saliba, a man who tasted the glory of the party during the Fenech Adami era, and who skillfully navigated Lawrence Gonzi during the explosive Mistragate affair, is today looking at a different, and divided party.

Some internal critics at the PN headquarters will probably see Saliba as part of the reason for the financial deficits the party has incurred over the past 10 years. When he exited politics, the PN was at the apex of its political destiny, delivering Malta from its non-aligned isolationism to the promised spring of European Union accession. What was left for the PN to do at that point, this newspaper once asked Saliba? Reap the benefits of EU accession of course, he had replied, with Gonzi then stepping in as a prime minister, seeking “efficiencies” and “competitiveness” in the country, two watchwords from the PN lexicon at the time.

In another interview right before the bitter 2004 PN leadership election, Saliba acknowledged the fact that the party had its own factions with their own different visions for the party. “The new leader will be showing his mettle when seeking compromise between these forces. This is the crucial factor in our party,” he had said.

On both these two fronts, the PN’s future seems to have been completely derailed at that point: once inside the EU, the PN sat on its laurels and refused to catch up with the thirst for change that Maltese society demanded now that it could be free to aspire to European standards; and on the second front, the Gonzi faction would not only alienate the John Dalli faction – problematic though that minister would always be – but also be part of an unofficial media campaign to punch down hard on internal critics with the power of the poison pen, and by ascribing guilt by association at will.

When Saliba left the PN, the party was a year away from a dramatic loss at the European elections. Labour was now led by the young Joseph Muscat, a man Gonzi thought would be a weaker adversary than his leadership rival George Abela – whom he kicked upstairs to the Presidency, relieving Muscat of any reference point for opposing factions. Nothing would be the same for the PN after 2009. It was the beginning of the end, with alienated MPs making life hard in Gonzi’s parliamentary one-seat majority, a divorce referendum and bitter debate on censorship becoming enduring images of the PN’s inveterate and obdurate conservatism.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, a man like Lawrence Gonzi, who as party leader never obtained one single absolute majority for the PN, should also be cautious about demanding confidence votes from the Opposition leader. Adrian Delia’s democratic election was detested by the party establishment once loyal to Gonzi and later Simon Busuttil but Delia’s departure from a party struggling with an identity crisis left to worsen from the Gonzi era, will not change the PN’s fortunes.

Delia may well stay on as a lame duck till the next election unless anybody is willing to mount a challenge and take up the poisoned chalice that is the divided PN. But the party will still face the risk of permanently becoming a second party and lose its ability to command sustained electoral majorities from the political centre. The PN is up against a formidable electoral machine in tune with Maltese aspirations but at risk of losing pockets of society alienated by the speed of economic growth.

There is no doubt that unless Delia can articulate the ideological change the PN requires to start moving into a direction that brings it closer to power, his days are, indeed, numbered. The embattled leader makes himself available to the press and critics, as his recent Xarabank confrontation – an assemblage of party sideshows and other benign observers – shows. Delia thinks that his openness to scrutiny furthers his popular appeal.

But politics is made of sterner stuff. Inspiration and hope is key, and the PN’s disastrous campaign in the 2019 European elections offered none of that. If Delia cannot offer ideological direction, if he cannot articulate what a modern conservative, and Christian-democratic party in Malta should stand for, and how it will align itself on issues that might challenge that identity, the PN cannot hope for deliverance.

The PN has already been dismembered by wedge issues like gay marriage and adoptions; without a socially liberal orientation it will be condemned to stay as a large minority party. Its moralistic umbrage on corruption and good governance have also failed to damage the Labour government’s chances at the last elections. Surely there must be another way. A lurch to the left? Impossible from the party that basked in the economic growth of the construction industry and ravages of a planning system back in the 2000s.

But it will have to devise a new playbook very quickly, to resolve its hang-ups. That’s Delia’s job right now. Let the first one with the better plan cast the first stone.