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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

How to destroy a political party

If this is the way the PN intends to reinvent itself after its colossal June 2017 drubbing... in all honesty, it may as well just disband from now

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
15 June 2017, 7:20am
Ivan Bartolo
Ivan Bartolo
I don’t know Ivan Bartolo (pictured) personally – in fact, I had never even heard of him before a couple of months ago – but he somehow struck me as being among the saner and more promising of the PN’s new wave of candidates in this election. 

It could, of course, be a complete misjudgement on my part. Who knows? It is altogether too easy to construct a likeable public persona, in this age when everything is judged precisely by ‘likes’ on Facebook. But still: it takes a certain political nous even just to choose, cultivate and successfully project a public image. Clearly, this newcomer to the political scene had the intelligence and vision to actively appeal to considerable numbers of voters. Not enough to get himself catapulted into Parliament, certainly – that would have been too much to expect at a first attempt – but at least, enough to position himself well to be next in line for a seat in a  casual election.

In itself, that is no small feat – considering the heavyweights he was contending with on his district.

Yet after such a promising start, Mr Bartolo has just announced his retirement from politics in a rather wistful tweet: “My short career in politics comes to an end today. The executive members of the PN decided to vote to keep the 9th district closed. I thank all those voters who believed in a fresh look, in a new beginning, and in new, progressive positive ideas. Politics is no longer on my radar.”

Right: like I said earlier, I don’t know what sort of MP Ivan Bartolo would have been, had he actually made it to Parliament. It is probably one of things we will now never know. But I can’t help feeling that this amounts to a loss for the PN. And – like all that party’s many recent losses and defeats – an entirely self-inflicted one at that.  

The decision to ‘close the 9th district’ is by no means incidental. Following an electoral rout of truly unprecedented proportions, the Nationalist Party executive was faced with an entirely routine post-election decision... but one which now has critical implications. As our system allows individual candidates to get elected on two districts at most, there follows a process whereby the party decides which seat is to be held by those MPs who were elected twice, and which to relinquish.

This in turn opens the door to other candidates who were next in line. On the 9th district, that included Ivan Bartolo. On the 10th, it points towards the re-election of George Pullicino: who was significantly by-passed by the electorate in his hometown of Sliema.

Given the reality of the overwhelming electoral defeat the PN has just sustained, this otherwise run-of-the-mill exercise assumes gargantuan importance. The choice is as stark as it is simple: does the PN engineer things in such a way as to give their party a much-needed transfusion of young blood? Or do they handpick the same old tired candidates from yesteryear... even though they had just been rejected by the electorate?

No prizes for guessing the answer. The PN’s executive council chose to facilitate the re-election of George Pullicino on the 10th district – part of the old guard, and therefore part of the reason the PN had lost so much support in the first place – at the expense of a new candidate who looked and sounded like he might actually have had a contribution to make.

If this is the way the PN intends to reinvent itself after its colossal June 2017 drubbing... in all honesty, it may as well just disband from now. If nothing else, it would spare us the ordeal of watching a once proud and energetic political party, sliding slowly but inexorably towards extinction.

At which point, one has to ask. Whose brilliant idea was this, anyway? You can’t blame Simon Busuttil, who resigned. The PN statute still requires a leadership election to be held anyway. So make no mistake: this is not a decision that can realistically be laid at Busuttil’s door. In the absence of an official leader, the Nationalist Party now falls back to its default position: with strategic decisions taken behind closed doors by people whose identity remains a vague mystery.

But back to the decision itself, and what it portends. There are two problems with it that I can see off-hand; and both have mammoth implications for the future of the party. 

The first is that (no offence, or anything) but people like George Pullicino have nothing new to offer to the PN. His re-election would only cement the same old features onto the face of a party that is in urgent need of cosmetic surgery. It is like a football coach doggedly refusing to substitute tired veterans with young, fresh reserves. Defeat becomes inevitable for that reason alone.

The second problem is that the PN executive council’s decision flies directly in the face of the electorate’s express wishes. Any electoral result is open to multiple interpretations; but on this front, the message from PN voters on the 10th district (which was my own district for most of my life) was inescapably clear. If they wanted George Pullicino in Parliament, they would have voted him in... like they did in every previous election. 

This time round, there was a palpable feeling on the ground that the old guard had to be replaced for the good of the party. There were even social media campaigns urging PN voters to ‘use their vote wisely’, in order to change the parliamentary group’s composition... and therefore, by inference, the direction of the party as a whole. 

The PN executive council cannot claim to have been unaware of all this – it was visible to any who cared to look. One can only conclude, therefore, that it deliberately chose to ignore this message... in other words, to give its own voters the proverbial middle finger.  

But why did the council do it? Why do they continue to defy the electorate... without whose support, I need hardly add, they can kiss any hope of electoral victory goodbye for the foreseeable future?

A number of possibilities spring to mind. The first is a little complex, as it involves juggling around to secure majorities in key districts. One of the most startling developments in this election – though curiously, no one seems to have noticed it yet (not even I, as it was pointed out to me by a friend) – is that the PN actually lost its majority on the 10th district: traditionally, its greatest electoral stronghold. 

OK, they didn’t lose it to Labour... they lost it to Marlene Farrugia, their own electoral ally, who (though elected on the PN ticket) is actually the leader of another party... with whom no ‘coalition’ is now possible, as ‘coalitions’ do not (and cannot) exist in opposition. 

From this perspective, rather than ‘choose Pullicino’, the PN executive chose the 10th district over the ninth... with the identity of the candidate automatically becoming a secondary consideration. If this is the case: what does it tell us about the wisdom of the ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ idea to begin with? Not only did it cost the PN a crucial seat in a previously secure district – which they now have to scramble to ‘regain’ – but it also, indirectly, cost them the opportunity to at least begin rebuilding their party from scratch.

That, I stress, is one way of looking at it. There is another, and it’s even more worrying (because there is evidence for it everywhere you look). I suspect that – as tends to happen to political parties when they approach their death throes – the inner sanctum of the PN is now thinking only of saving its own skin. It is scrambling to resist a wave of change that threatens to unseat a lot of shadowy figures, who have until this point been sitting smugly at the controls in the PN’s innermost power structures.  

If so, it would be akin to the internal tensions we all saw in the USA’s Democratic Party before the last election: where the emergence of a charismatic and revolutionary Presidential candidate (Bernie Sanders) panicked the party establishment so much, that they ultimately preferred facilitating the election of Donald Trump, rather than embrace the changes demanded by their own party’s support-base.

We will know soon enough whether this is true also of the PN today. One little-known aspect of the (otherwise well-intentioned) reforms undertaken by Simon Busuttil, is that the new party leader will be elected by a much larger voter-base of card-holding members, yes... but their choice will be limited to only two candidates, chosen for their benefit by the PN executive council.

Judging by the way these people have already approached the casual elections, I would not be in any way surprised if this ‘choice’ is limited to two candidates representing continuity of the same style of leadership that has already proven so costly to the PN.

If my hunch is correct... then perhaps we had better start preparing for a post-PN scenario from now. 

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