The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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TMIS interview: Bernard Grech sets sights on winning next general election

Albert Galea Sunday, 23 June 2024, 07:30 Last update: about 25 days ago

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech has set his sights on winning the next general election, telling The Malta Independent on Sunday that this was the next step after the party achieved its targets in the European Parliament and local council elections this year.

In an interview, Grech answered questions about the election results – where for the European Parliament the PN brought the gap between it and the PL down from some 42,000 votes to 8,454 votes, and in the local councils the party won several key localities and brought the vote gap down from 47,000 votes to 20,255 votes.

Grech told this newspaper that the PN’s targets coming into this election were to half the gap between it and the PL in the European and local council elections, and to also win back several localities. “We reached and exceeded those targets,” he said.

“We set targets which were achievable and which, while difficult, we could work towards; so that’s the middle ground we reached today,” he continued.

“The next target is that, like we achieved majorities in a number of localities and in Gozo, we now move towards the majority needed to be a new Nationalist government that this country evidently needs,” he said.

Much has been said about the “message” that the electorate sent to the Labour Party, but what about to the Nationalist Party?

Posed this question, Grech said that the electorate had also sent a message to the PN: “The electorate is telling us that it is giving us more faith but it wants to see more from us.”

“That’s the message which interests me moving forward, as when the dust settles and one continues to analyse the numbers it is evident that while we are on the right road to go forward, by gaining new majorities in localities and the majority in Gozo, now we need to work towards having a national majority so we can be the next Nationalist government,” he said.

Asked what the PN is going to do to head into this direction, Grech said that the party needs to “constantly keep renewing” itself and to continue to speak to people and social partners to form its politics.

He said that a lot more people had started coming to the PN since the results of the elections were counted, including those who did not vote for the PN in this election. Grech said that some of those people were Nationalists who hadn’t voted this time around because they had simply given up hope and felt that the gap between the parties was too big.

“I believe that the fact that we have now managed, with everyone’s help, to get to a gap where people are gaining the courage to believe that we can change the majority and install a new Nationalist government makes the road forward a lot more possible to achieve,” Grech said.

“We need to keep on working, regenerating, and reforming,” he said, adding that the party also needs to continue to widen its policies to give more attention to what people are saying and to push the party’s message more effectively.


20,255 or 8,454: what’s in 11,801 votes?

The gap between the PL and the PN in the European Parliament election and the local council elections differed by 11,801 votes – with the PN performing better in the European Parliament election than in the local council elections.

While the surveys did not predict the gap which the PN ultimately registered, there were questions once the results were made public how much of an impact Roberta Metsola had on the final result – particularly within the context of the difference between the PN’s results in the two elections.

Asked about how much he thought this result was down to this so-called “Metsola factor”, Grech said that “everything has an effect”.

“We are proud of the line-up that we had: we had eight valid candidates all of a different profile and all of whom had something to offer, not just throughout the campaign but also if they were to be elected in the European Parliament. Roberta Metsola is a strong candidate, who we are proud of, as we are of all candidates and she definitely contributed to that result,” he said.

When it comes to local councils, Grech said that the party had increased its vote share in almost all localities and won one or two seats in several councils as well, besides acquiring new majorities.

He said that one cannot ignore the fact that in local councils – particularly in smaller localities – there is a more personal loyalty to candidates.

Despite this, he said, the majority in Pembroke was not achieved for the first time by just seven votes, while in San Gwann – where he said that the PL mayor was widely respected also by Nationalists, “the people decided to change and go for a PN leadership, as ultimately it’s clear that the people are understanding that this is a government which is not authentic”.

Asked which out of the two vote gaps was the one which is closer to what the result of a general election would be should it be held today, Grech said he doesn’t like to speculate.

He said that many people had written the PN off in the run-up to 8 June, but the situation now has changed thanks to the “extraordinary advance” that the PN had made when compared to the results of the same set of elections back in 2019.


Abstentions and independents

These elections were set apart not just by the much closer vote gap, but also by the 100,000 or so people who chose to abstain and 33,102 people who voted for independent candidates or other political parties.

Asked about the voters who abstained and how the PN can attract them into their fold, Grech said that the PN’s priority remains to attract more people “to express themselves in the democratic process”, saying that this ultimately is the basis for a strong democracy.

“The reality is that around the world the interest in politics is decreasing,” he said.

He said that the tally of 100,000 people who didn’t vote also includes people who no longer live in Malta but remain on the electoral register, but said that regardless the PN needs to be more attractive to more people.

Grech meanwhile does not agree with the interpretation that many – especially youths – are uniting behind candidates who are not affiliated with the two major parties.

“I don’t agree that people are uniting behind these candidates because they are individual candidates – you can join the amounts together but in reality they remain a number of votes for individual candidates unless it’s an organised party,” he said.

“There is a sentiment that there are some who look at these candidates as an alternative, but in reality everybody understands that the big problems that the country has is because the PL has lost its sense of direction, because it doesn’t offer solutions anymore, because it left the Maltese people to fend for themselves,” he said.

“In this sense, the way forward is to have a party with a history – with all our defects – which can give guarantees, which can offer a strong pair of hands to address the major difficulties that the people have and move forward,” he said.

“In no way do I want to remove from the merits of independent candidates but facts are facts. From the 15,000 votes that the PL lost, 11,000 went to the PN. So the migration that is being interpreted is a bit more than reality – the interpretation is a bit overblown,” he said.

Grech added however that the fact remains that his party needs to be more open and inclusive in order to attract more people under its umbrella. This umbrella should harbour people who maybe don’t necessarily agree with each other, but understand that the way forward for the country is to have a government that knows where it’s going and which can grow the economy “without filling the pockets of those who robbed the country and think it’s theirs alone”.

When it comes to local councils, Grech disagrees that people preferred independent candidates over the PN, particularly in Mellieha and Birkirkara – where the PN did not achieve an absolute majority and where the council is deadlocked.

Grech said that the party increased its vote share in both those localities – only had that not been the case would the premise have been correct.

He noted that in councils such as the aforementioned two the election of an independent has resulted in a hung council.

“In reality, while we are ready to speak, discuss and work so there is a leadership for the good of all residents and the locality, you also understand that in localities where independents got a significant chunk of votes, it seems there is a difficulty because an agreement needs to be reached,” he said.

“There you can see how while an independent may seem like something trendy, but if there isn’t cooperation then there may be more difficulties,” he continued.

When asked if he believes reforms in local council elections are necessary to address situations like this, Grech said that it would be beneficial to consider these realities. He referred to the 1987 electoral reforms, which meant that the party which achieved the majority of the votes was guaranteed to govern – even if it received fewer seats.

“It will be good to see how to respect the majority: 48% is not an absolute majority, but it’s a relative majority and quite strong when compared to 42%. So to have a situation in Birkirkara, for example, where the PL leads the locality with 42% would be a bit anomalous,” he said.


Vitals and the police commissioner

Grech would not be drawn into analysing why he thinks the PL lost votes. “I’m not interested in how the PL goes backwards and is going backwards: I’m worried about how the country is going backwards. That’s what interests me as a party leader as an alternative to this government and on how we are going to offer an alternative to the people,” he said.

But when asked whether the Vitals inquiry was a factor, Grech agreed, and said that it wasn’t the fact that the inquiry was concluded that was a factor, “but also the mishandling of a prime minister who did not recognise that he had to be the bigger person and choose the people. Instead he chose those, as he has done in past years, who defrauded the Maltese people as this is the agreement he has with them”.

Grech was asked about the process which has now begun with regards to the Vitals inquiry, and whether he too is worried about certain details about what the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner have, and haven’t, done.

He said that first and foremost it is important that the process is allowed to take place and to allow the institutions to work.

“We will stay vigilant, keep putting pressure and remain insistent as we have done more than once publicly that both the Attorney General and Police Commissioner do their jobs while the process is ongoing,” he said.

Grech recalled the time when he, along with fellow MPs Adrian Delia and Karol Aquilina, presented Commissioner Angelo Gafà with a document containing a list of people who they felt action should be taken against – many of whom are now facing court proceedings – and Gafà had said that the police was not doing any of its own investigations independently from the magisterial inquiry.

He said that he had stated this some days later and Gafà denied it, but testimony in court had confirmed that this was in fact the case.

“This is a big shortcoming,” he said. He drew parallels with a murder, saying that besides the automatic opening of a magisterial inquiry, the police also carry out its own investigations as it has an obligation to do so.

“That’s what happens where there are normal people. But when you have politicians and people who hold important positions in the country, it’s clear that we have a Police Commissioner who feels that he should do nothing – and that’s a big danger,” he said.


The establishment and the PL’s post-mortem

Asked about the Prime Minister’s insistence on the use of the word “establishment” to refer to the PN, Grech called this “very poor talk” and said that it worries him to see a Prime Minister stoop down to those levels.

“Rather than seeing how to improve people’s lives, he sees how to degenerate our level of politics with conjectures and conspiracy theories,” Grech said.

He said that if there is an establishment, it is the Prime Minister himself and the government, which has been in power for 11 years now and which has done all it can to take control of the country’s institutions.

“I think the people today understand that this is a Prime Minister who has lost every sense of proportion and projects onto others what he does himself,” Grech said.

In his early post-mortems on Labour Party media, Abela said that the people want the government to take “courageous” decisions, including on topics such as euthanasia and abortion.

Asked about this, Grech said that the first courageous decision Abela has to take is “how and when he will distance himself from his predecessor, with whom he made a devilish pact”.

“It’s clear that this is a Prime Minister who says things to try and deflect attention,” Grech continued.

In mentioning abortion, Grech said, the Prime Minister had hurt not just those who are against abortion but also those who are in favour as they realised that for the Prime Minister abortion is just a subject to bring up to try and get his back off the wall.

He said that the PN has no difficulty in discussing what needs to be discussed, and had in fact voted in favour of a law on abortion which Abela had said was the best law he could present.

“For him to bring up this argument a few months later, it’s clear that this is a Prime Minister not led by principles, but by convenience.”

He said that the country has important priorities before it, such as its debt, which stands at €10 billion, saying that Abela had increased the debt by more than all previous governments between 1964 and 2020.

The debt itself isn’t necessarily the biggest problem, Grech said, but the problem is that there isn’t anything to show for it. He said that there was no investment in the electricity system, €700 million in European funds spent on roads for people to still be stuck in traffic and €400 million spent for zero investment in the country’s hospitals.

He said that Abela’s government spends but doesn’t invest, and runs itself by “firefighting” and continually trying to solve crises of its own making.

The people, he continued, want to hear Abela to speak about subjects of substance to improve people’s lives in the next three years.

Grech said that the economy will be the PN’s first and foremost priority, and its plan for economic excellence is there to assure people that a PN government can create a strong economy which grows without decreasing people’s quality of life.

He said that the party would keep investing in education and educators – who he said the government only cares about in the run-up to elections, in the health sector and in regaining Malta’s reputation.

The PN, he said, will work to create new economic sectors, noting that every investment from private companies that the government has inaugurated was in sectors that the PN had created.

Finally, he said that the PN will move towards alternative energy, buildings of quality, aesthetics which respect people’s quality of life and food security by strengthening Malta and Gozo’s farmers, shepherds and fishermen.

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