The Malta Independent 15 July 2024, Monday
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Analysis: 7 reasons why road is still long for PN

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 23 June 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 21 days ago

It had been a long time that there was so much euphoria in the Nationalist Party ranks.

So much so that, Labour supporters are mocking their political adversaries for “celebrating a defeat”.

But what happened at the counting hall in Naxxar in the last two weeks smacked of success for the PN, in spite of yet another loss. The outcome of both the European Parliament and local council election has given the PN a renewed hope.

For more than a decade, the distance between the PL and PN grew exponentially. Each time an election was to be held, the question was not who would win, but by how much. And, almost every time, this distance between the parties grew. There was a time when there was talk of a possible two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives for the PL.

Now, all of a sudden, the two major political parties are much closer to each other.  The Labour Party is no longer comfortable, and the Nationalist Party is seeing that what was impossible until 8 June is now no longer so.

Yet, as its leader Bernard Grech said, what was achieved in the June elections was only the first step. The road ahead is still long, winding and arduous, and with the PL now looking over its shoulder and possibly learning from its mistakes, the more difficult part for the PN comes now.

These are seven reasons why.

  1. Internal issues

Bernard Grech became leader of the Nationalist Party after what was one of the most difficult moments in the PN’s history. He was seen as having been “imposed” on the party by a group of rebels who had worked to see him replace Adrian Delia, who had won the popular vote among party members soon after Simon Busuttil called it quits following the 2017 election debacle.

The so-called Delia faction of the party did not accept him kindly, and Grech struggled to keep the reins of the party in full grasp. He lost the 2022 election heavily but, unlike Busuttil, decided to stay on and start rebuilding. Ironically, it was the same Delia who came to his rescue, via the court case that Delia had instituted for the return of three public hospitals which had been passed on by the Labour government to private companies. Since February 2023, things have changed.

Delia’s legal victory, apart from vindicating him, gave the PN a new lease of life. Seizing the moment, Grech used it to bring the party’s factions together, not without Delia’s own help as the latter set aside any grudges to work as closely as he could with his successor in the best interests of the party. But Grech was able to turn the hospitals’ win to make it his own without belittling the merits of Delia, and since then it appears that things are running more smoothly.

Are the problems over? No, of course not. But it has been a long time since anything untoward has leaked from Pieta, and this is good news for the PN. The 8 June results can only serve to solidify the party behind one major cause, that of doing everything possible to be in a position to win the 2027 election. Grech now has to be clever in keeping the members of his team united behind him. Any signs of discontent will dampen the feel-good factor and push voters away from the party.

  1. The Metsola factor

The 8 June results show that the gap between the Labour Party and Nationalist Party was smaller in the European Parliament election than in the local council elections.

There are various factors that contributed to this, and one of them certainly is Roberta Metsola. The European Parliament President must have attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of votes from the so-called floating or undecided voters, thanks to her role in international politics and the way she has used it. Her impact on the EP election was absent in the local councils poll, and hence the difference in the margin with which the PN lost at local level.

Metsola has so far kept her distance from the general election and, even if she were to ultimately decide to run in 2027, her input will be limited to two districts. She will not be able to have so much effect on the overall result as she has done at the EP election, when the country votes as one electoral district.

The PN will have to find a way to utilise the Metsola factor in national politics. At this moment in time, it is probable that she will stay away from the general election. If she is confirmed as the EP President for the term which has just started, it is more than likely that she will continue in her “international” career, rather than one limited to Maltese politics.

But as she has done already, Metsola should continue to be ready and willing to play her own part in pushing the PN’s agenda and give that extra helping hand, even from afar. She should not forget that she is where she is because she was first and foremost elected as an MEP on the PN’s ticket.

  1. A general election is different

A general election is a different animal from an EP/local council election.

In EP and local council elections, citizens tend to experiment more with their vote – in the sense that the tendency to pick a different preference when compared to a general election is much higher at EP/local council level than it is in a general election.

Some voters use EP/local council election to send a message to the party they support. It does not necessarily follow that, in a general election, they will discard the party they have always voted for. The stakes are much higher in a general election.

So the PN will have to work much harder to win votes in a general election. It was easier to convince the undecided to prefer PN candidates on 8 June than it will be whenever Prime Minister Robert Abela calls the next general election.

  1. The old guard/new faces

The Nationalist Party elected many new faces in the 2022 election, and this has helped to bring in fresh ideas and a new impetus.

But it must also be pointed out that several of these new MPs have not registered the impact that was expected from them. This has left the “old guard” taking on a good chunk of the work required, and ostensibly being more present in the media than the younger politicians. This has its negative side as although these veteran MPs have the experience with which to deal with certain situations, the PN is perceived as not having renewed itself – or renewed itself enough.

On the Labour Party’s end, the shift between the older and newer generation of politicians was much smoother. Since taking over the reins of the country in 2013, Labour has practically changed its line-up from top to bottom.

The PN has found it harder in this sense, which is uncommon for a party in opposition. It should be making an extra effort to bring in more, younger politicians. A few local councillors elected two weeks ago have the right qualities to make it. They should be given the exposure and chance to build their political career.

  1. The hospitals saga should not be only battle-cry

The hospitals saga has had the opposite effect on the two main parties. It has given a huge blow to Labour’s credentials, while at the same time strengthening the position of the PN. The conclusion of the magisterial inquiry has led to the arraignment of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his former chief of staff Keith Schembri and three former ministers, Chris Fearne, Konrad Mizzi and Edward Scicluna, all of whom are facing serious accusation.

The hospitals’ deal is only the largest of the long list of scandals that the Labour government has been involved in since taking over the running of the country in 2013. It was however the one that jolted the public into showing its disapproval, and it did so via the 8 June vote.

The issue will not go away anytime soon and the PN will do well to keep on insisting on justice and accountability. But the PN should not rely solely on it, thinking that it will be enough. The corruption scourge was already present before the 2017 and 2022 elections, and the PN did not win. History has thought us that corruption on its own is not enough for a party in government to lose an election.

  1. Valid alternative programme

For one thing, the Nationalist Party must offer a valid alternative programme to that of the government.

So far, the PN has been unable to portray itself as a better government to what Labour is offering, and this has hampered its chances in the eyes of the electorate. The PL has taken its power of incumbency to the extreme, and the PN cannot compete with this. It must therefore convince the people that it has better plans and, more importantly, the will to implement them.

While retaining and improving on what Labour has managed in the past years, the PN must be seen as having solutions to the many problems that the country is facing.

These include over-population issues, which the PL has failed to tackle; traffic mayhem, which is not solved only by building new roads and widening others; over-tourism, to which Labour is closing both eyes as it goes for the numbers rather than for quality visitors; pressure on the health and education sectors, brought about mostly by the population surge but not only; and the environment, which does not only mean a small pocket of a garden in the middle of a concrete jungle.

  1. Financial woes

The Nationalist Party is not on its feet from a financial point of view. It was amply clear during the election campaign that the Labour Party’s resources were almost infinite when compared to the PN. Just remember how many Labour billboards dotted the country, and compare them to the few the PN had. Labour had money to spend lavishly and extravagantly, the PN did not.

This situation will not change any time soon. The PN, therefore, must use its limited funds with care, maximising benefits with the minimum of costs.

It must also make better use of social media. Even here, the Labour Party was miles ahead in the latest campaign when it came to reaching out to voters via all the platforms that exist. Not only in terms of numbers, but also in the way its message was spread.

The PN managed to make substantial inroads into Labour’s lead in spite of a weaker campaign. To win, it will have to come up with a more effective marketing strategy in 2027.

 

 

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