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PN debates must give vision

One thing the PN leadership contest should start focusing on is the need to counterbalance Mucat's dominance on a national scale. Electors should be shown what a potential prime minister looks like, and this means that a party leader should have a plan for the country as a whole. 

20 August 2017, 9:50am
Nationalist Party Leadership contenders Chris Said, Frank Portelli, Alex Perici Calascione and Adrian Delia (left to right)
Nationalist Party Leadership contenders Chris Said, Frank Portelli, Alex Perici Calascione and Adrian Delia (left to right)
As the PN leadership election gets closer to hosting televised debates between prospective leaders, it should serve as a timely reminder for candidates to concentrate on their vision for Malta.

So far, this aspect has largely been missing. The contest has focused on the state of the Nationalist Party following two consecutive defeats. This is perhaps understandable, given that contestants must convince the party delegates (as opposed to the wider electorate). But it is also a small part of the uphill struggle.

In many respects, the PN’s misfortunes can be put down to an inability to inspire the wider population in general. There was too much ‘opposition’ and too little ‘proposition’: the party seemed more intent on trying to unseat the Labour government through overt criticism, than by offering a tangible, plausible and inspirational alternative to Muscat’s style of leadership.

Naturally one expects an opposition party to ‘oppose’. But the election result alone illustrates that it is not enough to discredit one’s political opponents. One must also present a viable, credible political platform of one’s own: a vision that does not merely satisfy the electorate on the strength of its plausibility... but also enthuses the people, and makes voters feel they are participating in a nation-building exercise.

Now, more than ever, this need is being felt at both party and national level. The aftershocks of the June election have exposed deep rifts and inner divisions within the Nationalist Party. It would take a leader of considerable mettle to lay down a coherent vision that can unite the different factions to a common purpose.

But the country, too, needs a new leadership vision. Joseph Muscat has so far demonstrated exceptional skill in placating and accommodating different interest groups to his own party’s advantage. He has also repeatedly shown that he can inspire belief among the population. But cracks are beginning to show in the vision with which he mesmerised the country in 2013. The election result does not cancel out serious misgivings about governance and maladministration. Pipe dreams such as ‘meritocracy’ and ‘transparency’ have never materialised as realities... and under Labour, the inter-dependence of political and commercial interests has continued to undermine public confidence in the nation’s institutions.       

Despite efforts to project the contrary, all is not well within Muscat’s administration. His apparent dominance on the political front may be partly a reflection of his own skill at electioneering... but it may also owe something to the lack of any real alternative vision provided by his opponents.

One thing the PN leadership contest should start focusing on is the need to counterbalance this dominance on a national scale. Electors should be shown what a potential prime minister looks like, and this means that a party leader should have a plan for the country as a whole. He (or she, if there were any female contenders) has to demonstrate the ability to be a convincing problem-solver; who understands the pulse of the people and can also act as a good leader who seeks justice, not necessarily catering simply for people’s selfish whims.

The next leader should also be able to properly map out the PN’s space in the political landscape. It is not enough to present oneself as ‘antagonistic to Labour’: as if being ‘anti-Labour’ were a badge of political identity in itself. Any number of diverse interest groups might gather under that umbrella... but if the only thing holding the coalition together is a rejection of Labour, the coalition itself will not last.

Nor is it good enough to try and beat Muscat at his own game. Now that Labour’s second consecutive victory has increased its majority, the last thing the people need is a copycat party or leader. Given a choice between Joseph Muscat’s Labour, and a poor copy of the same product, they are likely to continue choosing the former.

Even without these considerations, the PN owes it to its supporters to offer a brand with which people can identify on its own merits. Malta needs an authentic voice of leadership that can promote partisanship as benefits the nation, and can promote intelligent rhetoric that does not merely seek to make people angry... but rather, more discerning and demanding of the powers that be.

To achieve this would require the creation of alliances with various stakeholders. That means that the PN’s new leader must also be a good communicator and negotiator.

Unsurprisingly, these are all qualities we associate with successful prime ministers. This is why the debate must transcend its immediate partisan concerns, and start talking about the state of the country as a whole.

There is much to be said, too. A future prime minister must articulate a courageous vision for a nation that must be proud of what it has, that does not cower to business interests but can also promote a strong green agenda – as opposed to the customary ‘greenwash’ – that can propel civil society into decision-making by removing the parties’ stranglehold on broadcasting and other regulators; that can propose solutions for Malta’s growing traffic problem, among others.

It will take much more than fighting talk to present this challenge. Ideas and inspiration are sorely needed, too.

DealToday
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