The Malta Independent 25 June 2018, Monday

Better together

Clyde Puli Sunday, 3 September 2017, 08:25 Last update: about 11 months ago

The Party is neither its leader or officials, outgoing or incoming, nor its headquarters which we Nationalists fondly call 'Stamperija'. The party is its ideals and its people. Without these two essential elements, there is no Party.

So on the day after the first round of the Nationalist Party leadership elections, I will attempt to neither forecast the outcome nor make an appeal in favour or against any one of the candidates. Instead, this is my heartfelt appeal for unity for the sake of the Nationalist Party's future, a future that extends way beyond 16th September.

Two consecutive massive electoral defeats, with the last one being slightly worse than the one before, shook the party to the core.

The party had, presumably, already reached its lowest level of support when the party was in Opposition. It had to deal with a most corrupt government, fending off the worst international crisis and internal rifts, and when the supporters were experiencing a newly found optimism which ultimately resulted little other than a bubble, as the intensity of that enthusiasm did not result in massive votes.

It was therefore inevitable that supporters experienced a cocktail of emotions ranging from disheartening, bewilderment and anger.

The leadership contest

In my political career, this is now the third leadership contest I have experienced from up close. In many ways, this contest is no different from its predecessors, with its highs and lows; however, there are many ways in which it is different too.

This is the first time a leadership contest has included the direct involvement of all the twenty thousand something Party members as against what happened in the last elections where only the members of the general council could vote. This in itself generated a more wide-ranging interest in the election and consequently a greater sense of ownership. But this essentially dictated that the candidates' campaigns go public rather than remain behind closed doors. So the risk of whispering campaigns turning into the washing of dirty laundry in public became a possibility which called for greater responsibility from those who should know better.

This is also the first election where its key moments and interest have become amplified not only through the traditional media which is ever hungrier for top stories and some sensationalism to pepper an otherwise dreary summer. The amplification went democratic through social media which is uncontrollable by nature.  

A needed healthy discussion

Overall, we have witnessed a lengthy ideological discussion about whether the Party should be more conservative or liberal. We discussed the efficacy of the party machine and its structures. We discussed were we got it wrong to deserve such an electoral result. And finally, the councillors debated whether the party should capitalise on a wealth of already available experience, including the time in government, or think totally outside the box and try a new way of doing things through leadership that's endowed with empathy, understanding and charisma which could possibly connect us once again to the disenchanted and disenfranchised. Some believe that the ideal formula lies somewhere in between and is possible if we dare move a bit further away of the present dominant idea of Maltese politics and its American presidential style of leadership.

Of course, these discussions are not unimportant, but there is a far more pressing issue that needs to be handled soon: the risk of Party supporters losing faith, not only in the Party leadership but also in the Party as a whole if the unavoidable process of change is not suitably and wisely managed from beginning to end. There is a risk that the losers will not be just the candidates who did not make it and their supporters.

The risks of an ineffective healing process

I am angered by a perception perpetuated through some quarters, not least the Labour Party itself, that there is no leadership material contesting this race. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Only the gullible cannot see through the dubious intentions of those disseminating such an idea.

But admittedly, circumstances have made it difficult even for someone with a generous dose of leadership qualities. There has been too much doubt - whether justified or not - poured on the personal integrity of the candidates and their ability to serve in the role of Prime Minister free of any conflict of interest and about the calls, well-intentioned or not, signed or anonymous, for the Administrative Council to investigate charges flying around.

There are fundamental questions Party supporters are asking, those who have been there through thick and thin, through the despair of electoral defeat as in the joy of victory. Will these self-inflicted wounds be tended to? Will there be a healing process? Will the Party ever be back to being a valid Opposition carefully scrutinising the government?

Philosophies of inclusion versus winner take all

The real challenge will start on 16th September. The Nationalist Party has in the past prided itself on being a people's party. Never as much as now must that slogan be put into effect. It is tempting, after a hard-fought campaign, to go by "winner takes all" or "spoils to the victor". That is a sure recipe for further decline of the Party's support if not its collapse. There is already a growing sentiment of "this is not my Party anymore" and the last thing a new leader should do is to let that sentiment grow.

The new leader of the party will be its new face hoping to attract new support and that is where his charisma will be handy to connect with the people. But apart from being its face, the leader will also be the glue that holds it together. If he fails in this, his mission is doomed from the outset.

To successfully achieve what he has set to do, he has to find a common cause and a common appeal strong enough to bridge any differences that might have emerged. He has to be a real leader to restore the supporters' faith and make them believe again. But he has also to be magnanimous in victory giving space to all people of goodwill. Starting from Party HQ, to its general council members and supporters and eventually to all those voters who, even if they have never voted Nationalist, love this country and are ready to do what is best for it.

Glossing over the details, these are the things which the Nationalist Party needs to do in order to remain a viable political force in the country.

Nazzjonalisti unite

So yes, it is the time to rethink and refresh but it is also time to regroup. We are a collective force not just followers of one leader or another. This is how we grow and this is how we inspire others to join our cause. United we stand. Divided we fall. It is better together.


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