The Malta Independent 27 September 2023, Wednesday
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Will we ever have a phoenix-like PN again?

Mark Said Sunday, 20 November 2022, 06:34 Last update: about 11 months ago

By 2027, at the latest, and if still functioning, the PN would have already been 14 years in Opposition. During the post-Second World War period, the Nationalist Party somehow survived the onslaught of a few budding and rival political forces. After we had a new Constitution in 1961, it substantially gained popularity that earned it the reins of power, with George Borg Olivier at the helm, until it was voted out of power in 1971. Thereafter, it fell into the doldrums and many predicted its political demise. Yet a new, warrior-like party leader, Eddie Fenech Adami, emerged out of nowhere and managed to get it out of the doldrums after 16 whole years in an effective opposition role that helped regain its lost electoral popularity in 1987.

There followed 25 whole years of nationalist administrations that soon started to be on the wane until the PN was convincingly voted out of power in 2013. Since that time, it has, once more, fallen into the doldrums and, today, is still wandering in the political wilderness, struggling to re-invent itself and forge a new identity resonant with today’s political expectations. It has been continually struggling with finding and identifying a solid leader having the capability and potential of leading it out of its ashes to rise again, phoenix-like, and steer Malta towards a bright future. However, today, what are the odds of it making it to the political fore again?

Many political parties faring as poorly as the PN in a bellwether general election would ditch key leaders if they did not go of their own accord. Not so Bernard Grech, who remains in charge after his attempts to connect with voters on the island. He spearheaded the party's 2022 general election campaign that also, once more, led to a humiliating defeat. Senior party members have not challenged Grech, even as they concede the need for action. While there may be no reason for despondency, there is definitely a need for surgical and structural changes and one doubts whether they will happen. It has no leader today with sound and broad acceptability who can take on Robert Abela and his party. His hiring of Chris Peregrin, the backroom strategist who helped chart Grech's rise to the party leader, did not pay off. Many PN activists admit that there is a need to make structural and organisational changes. However, that is a stock response that evades the fundamental issue: the PN faces a leadership crisis. Grech is now an unmitigated liability for the party.

The Nationalist Party has bounced back from devastation before, but they have not yet demonstrated any ability to introspect on their shortcomings. One option for it would be for Grech, or possibly his low-profile deputy leader Perici Calascione, to retain control of the central leadership while nurturing a new generation of potential leaders who could rebuild the party's electoral viability. Failing that, a series of continuing internal factions, conspiracies and alliances could blunt the PN's advance.

There were plenty of chances for intervention but the Nationalist Party is hurtling toward oblivion. The PN woke up in its Dar Ċentrali after Election Day, lying in a marble bathtub full of ice. Its back hurt and a kidney was missing. Hitting rock bottom had not come overnight. The troubles had been brewing for years, well before it headed for an obvious crushing electoral defeat. Once, there had been more than one valid and promising suitors. Still, the choice between Chris Said, Adrian Delia, Perici Calascione, Frank Portelli or Bernard Grech, celebrities demagogues or friendless ideologues, was a measure of how low things could go when the field narrowed to different flavours of conservative populist: angry and absolutist. The final decision was not driven by love as much as desperation.

Some activists and experts warned things were getting out of hand after a few crazy hate binges dragged the party far off-centre. But the rock-ribbed conservatives always pushed back and said those so-called friends were disloyal closet and disguised Labourites who just did not know how to party. But the party had been sneaking the hard stuff on the side for quite a while. At first, it was done in secret, and then the conservative camp fractured further into microsites populated largely by conspiracy entrepreneurs. As the party moved further right to play to the base, moderates were purged.

One can recall how the insult comedy on the campaign trail was seen as the antidote to pervasive political correctness. An arms race to see who could say the most outrageous thing became the surest way to dominate the news cycle. The PN defined deviancy down and, in cahoots with the PL, started seeing politics as an extension of entertainment. In the scrum, it did not seem to matter that the party was alienating voters it would need to attract to win a general election.

So is the PN still capable of integrating the long-term into its strategic reflections? Time after time, it has failed to be a professional election machine. Promoting, proposing and debating ideas should be the order of the day. In these times of economic challenges and the declared end of ideology, the PN is struggling to convincingly fill this role. Under these circumstances, developing ideas, spreading a platform and facilitating public debate are both necessary and secondary. Experts continue to write opinions, working groups meet, decision-makers are questioned and policy proposals are debated, some even with full-fledged communication plans to back them. But none of this imposed structure really has any effect on the reality of political party life within the PN.

Until the time comes again for another electoral campaign, fresh ideas must be generated once again, especially when the parties start closing ranks around the main candidates and a political personality is built. In the run-up to those times of conquering new or holding on to the old electoral ground, the exercise of proposing and debating ideas must remain important. Under these circumstances, producing ideas that can gain ground is a real challenge for the PN.

First, however, it must reconcile its short-term need to respond to the electorate with the development of long-term goals and strategies.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate


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