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[ANALYSIS] Who will take the Opposition forward?

James Debono outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the PN’s four leadership candidates as voting time approaches for the PN’s General Council

james
James Debono
29 August 2017, 9:00am
From left: Adrian Delia, Alex Perici Calascione, Frank Portelli and Chris Said
From left: Adrian Delia, Alex Perici Calascione, Frank Portelli and Chris Said
Adrian Delia
Adrian Delia
Adrian Delia: The upstart

Strength

He can sell himself as a self-made businessman who does not belong to the political caste or to any political dynasty. He clearly has charisma, the gift of the gab and a popular touch even if he failed to impress in the first televised debate between the four candidates on Thursday. If Simon Busuttil’s main problem was one of communication, Delia may be the best answer for the PN among the four standing. His experience in the world of football as president of Birkirkara FC – reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi’s role in AC Milan prior to his entry in politics – increases his streetwise appeal among a category which never warmed up to Busuttil.

Like any good businessman Delia seems to have the appetite to win and succeed. Having never served in a past Nationalist cabinet or official post creates a buffer between him and the misdeeds of past PN legislatures. In this sense he is in synch with a global mood, which catapulted personalities with no roots in established parties ranging from Emanuel Macron in France to Donald Trump in the USA.

Weakness

He lacks political experience and may find it difficult to work collegially in a diverse party. For while a top down approach may make sense in the business and football worlds, politics is by its nature an art of compromise. Moreover the mix between politics, football, legal services and business on its own opens him to scrutiny from different fronts.

And while Delia stands out as a good communicator in one to one interviews and may sway voters in one to one meetings, he seems to lack the same sparkle in debates. If he failed to impress in a debate with the other three PN candidates whose performance was uninspiring, it is far from certain whether he can ever outperform Muscat. Delia only sparkle was when he pounced on Said’s reference to party strategy being set by thinkers “in the backroom” insisting that the thinkers should be out in the open.

Yet this remark itself is also revealing on Delia’s mind-frame which ignores the reality that any party leader needs thinkers who can provide him with valuable insights without being exposed to the political circus.

Neither is it clear what he stands for. His way of dealing with inevitable media criticism and scrutiny has exposed a weakness: that of dismissing pertinent questions on his business interests as some sort of personal attack.

It is only now-after weeks of questions- that he announced that he intends publishing his financial interests. Had Delia immediately opted for full transparency by publishing his financial interests he may well have had an easier ride. Instead of setting the agenda by publishing his interests, he has let the media to set the agenda for him. Surely once he has hinted at divesting of his business interests it is not clear how one can divest oneself of debts.

Moreover while being quick in filing libels against Caruana Galizia he has so far not yet convincingly clarified his involvement in an offshore company in Jersey which emerges from documents published on her website.

Delia may argue that past leadership contenders were never asked to declare their assets and financial interests but this flies in the face that his own party had raised the bar during the past years by campaigning on honesty and that as a businessmen with interests in a construction firm he has to expect additional scrutiny. By presenting himself as the next leader of a party which for the past two years had called for the resignation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri for owning secret companies, Delia has inevitable exposed himself to scrutiny over any dealing involving offshore structures.

Moreover his appeal as someone unconnected to the PN’s past is somewhat dented by his having been on the receiving end of government contracts when the PN was in government.

The PN risks getting a Berlusconi who spends most of his time fending off attacks. The fact that he is already a target of Daphne Caruana Galizia may further distance him from the party’s recent past but it still leaves him exposed on different fronts. For Delia has found himself being simultaneously criticised by both Franco Debono and Caruana Galizia while finding the support of Robert Musumeci. Surely while his party may benefit by not letting any journalist or media outlet set its agenda, it can’t afford to be led by a leader exposed to criticism by a blogger which was deemed credible by the PN till a few months ago, to the point of organising a national protest after Chris Cardona slapped her with a criminal libel and a precautionary warrant after reporting his presence in German brothel .

Fear Factor

Adrian Delia is the most unpredictable of the contenders and perhaps the one who may be the easiest but also the hardest for Labour to demolish. He may even have the spontaneity, which Busuttil lacked, in his direct exchanges with Muscat. His unpredictability and flexibility may make him a harder nut to crack for Labour strategists. Yet if Muscat sticks to his word and vacates his post before the next election, Delia may well end up facing a new Labour leader chosen in full knowledge of his weaknesses. As an upstart Delia also gets more attention than traditional politicians. His own life narrative – a businessman with five children and a colourful wife – makes him interesting. In an increasingly presidential system, this sort of interest can work as an advantage even if it may make a category of discerning voters cringe. When faced with questions on controversial issues like IVF and euthanasia, Delia has tried to find a balance between conservatism and liberalism by showing empathy to real life situations. But how far can he carry on talking his way out when tested by Muscat’s concrete legislative proposals?

His business interests pose a problem. But with recent experience with Labour characters like Konrad Mizzi, the electorate may be quite forgiving when it comes to offshore investments, let alone financial peccadilloes. Having strongly denied ever owning any offshore company Delia’s position became even more complicated following claims by Caruana Galizia that around £1 million in money from London prostitution was processed through Adrian Delia’s Barclays International account in Jersey. Delia has denied holding monies offshore – belonging to him personally but has not ruled handling client’s accounts. Like Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri he immediately reacted to Caruana Galizia’s claims by filing libels.

One major advantage for Labour is that his exposure to possible criticism on business affairs may make him more reluctant to hold Labour officials to account. If elected Delia may constantly have to watch his back before confronting Labour on any case of impropriety. Labour had already hit out at PN leaning lawyers acting as intermediaries in the financial services industry to deflect the damage done by Panamagate. What a better target for Labour than the opposition leader himself to deflect further attacks from the opposition on this front?

The major benefit for Labour would be an opposition leader who may be reluctant to seek confrontation on its record on good governance simply to avoid having the spot light on his own affairs. This may well lead to an undeclared truce – something which would give Labour respite on the front.

But with a growing economy, corruption may well remain high on the country’s agenda, especially among those in civil society who are still outraged by institutional inertia over Panama. Delia has already hinted that he intends to tackle this issue in a different way, but has not shown how. Delia may well end up having to face the inevitable: that of facing Labour head on in this issue. But to do so he needs to be immune to the inevitable counter attacks.

Chris Said
Chris Said
Chris Said: Experienced

Strength

Said has banked on political experience in both cabinet and opposition, and has emphasised continuity with regard to Busuttil’s crusade against corruption. Said also has the track record of a doer with organisational skills, something which was evident from the days he served as Nadur mayor while coming across as a good orator.

His election would also cause the least problems for his party. As the only sitting MP among the four contenders, his election would not require anyone to give up his seat in parliament. With Said at the helm the party can stand assured that a level-headed politician who fully knows the rules of engagement is leading it. Said has also shown acumen by immediately showing his readiness to publish his financial interests, in a move which was clearly meant to embarrass Delia.

Said also comes across as a politician seasoned in the art of compromise. His call on the party to invest in sociological studies to understand change, may in itself signal a readiness to face the existential issues facing the PN: that of keeping conservatives and liberals together.

As an MP, despite hailing from conservative Gozo, Said immediately declared his willingness to vote for divorce after the referendum. But throughout the campaign Said was keen to retain his appeal among conservatives; addressing security issues in localities such as Bugibba and pandering to conservatives’ insistence on terms like mother and father alongside gender neutral terms in the new marriage bill. His stance against gentlemen clubs may defy his own party’s tolerance for such establishments when he served as Minister but indicates a willingness to take a stance on a peculiar issue which may appeal to moral conservatives and feminists and social justice activists alike.

Weakness

As the only sitting MP and a past member of Gonzi’s cabinet and party general secretary Said may well be perceived as the representative of the party establishment. Said’s other weakness may be his blandness. While it is the role which makes the politician, as was the case with Fenech Adami in the 1980s, it is not clear whether he has the oomph to inspire audiences.

His main baggage is his family connection and involvement in the construction industry.

In the past Said had shown remarkable ability to distance himself from his own brothers, going as far as reporting them for planning irregularities while serving as Nadur mayor.

Said has also failed in his big test after leaving the post of party general secretary, that of winning back Gozo for the PN. In fact Gozo was the district where Labour made most gains.

Said’s election will also test his party’s relationship with environmentalists, given his support for the Malta-Gozo tunnel and his ambiguity on the Gozo airstrip.

Fear factor

Said may be seen as too predictable and bland to pose a threat to Muscat or any future leader chosen in full knowledge of his weaknesses. On the other hand Said may compensate what he lacks in oomph with a sense of gravitas, a characteristic that may grow on him as he assumes the role of opposition leader.

Said may also be in a better position to reposition the party on the centre-left of the spectrum on economic issues while still paying lip service to conservatives in a balancing act in which Said seems to excel.

As a Gozitan he may also be best placed to win back one of the most strategic district.

Alex Perici Calascione
Alex Perici Calascione
Alex Perici Calascione: Level-headed

Strength

His candidature may have benefitted from revelations which tainted the other contenders. His major advantage is that he comes across as a decent and level-headed politician. As the party’s outgoing treasurer he also has a degree of hands-on experience without being too hampered by his party’s past baggage.

This helps him in projecting himself as a reformer of party structures. He also comes across as mildly liberal on social issues. Surely he has managed to emerge as the candidate whose reputation has remained intact in an increasingly acrimonious contest.

Weakness

Despite standing as an MEP candidate in 2009 when he only garnered 1,345 first count votes, which was fewer than Frank Portelli’s 2,459 votes, Perice Calascione is far from a household name. His candidature has so far not attracted the same amount of interest as that of newcomer Delia.

But that could underestimate Perici Calascione’s appeal among delegates who would be short-listing the two candidates who will face the verdict of party members. If Perici Calascione makes it to the second round, he will secure enough attention to make him a force to be reckoned with in the party’s future.

Fear factor

Perici Calascione’s election as leader will definitely be a surprise for his adversaries, who may be banking either on the continuity represented by Said or rapture represented by Delia. 

The soft-spoken Perici Calascione may well be in synch with those who see the PN as a voice of decency and moderation.

Still Perici Calascione has so far played safe, showing little appetite for the role he is aspiring to.

This may suggest that even if elected Perici Calascione will be simply taking up the role of interim leader, paving the way for a new leader who would take on the task after the next election.

Frank Portelli
Frank Portelli
Frank Portelli: The insurgent

Strength

He has projected himself as the insurgent candidate – a reverse hard-right version of Jeremy Corbyn, even earning a rebuke from his party for his xenophobic and homophobic comments. Portelli may strike a chord for his past militancy, being the only contender to have been active in the party in the 1980s.

Moreover since his election to the helm of the party is highly improbable, Portelli can afford to take commitments which he will probably will be never asked to honour. For example in last Thursday’s debate Portelli was the only one to describe the 2019 local councils and MEP elections as the litmus test of the new PN leader, pledging to resign if the party fails to gain back a minimum of 20,000 votes.

Of all candidates he was the most ideological – seeking to reinvent the party’s identity as a conservative and patriotic one.

But the patriotism he proposes tends to be of the exclusionary sort, something which has pushed the contest outside the boundaries of the European mainstream. Moreover Portelli may well claim that the party had no problem in accepting him as an MEP candidate in 2009 despite expressing similar views as today with regard to migration.

Weakness

Portelli did cross the lines of a party which since the 1970s has shifted to more centrist ground and which has consistently rejected xenophobia.

His unlikely election to the post would further alienate liberals from the PN, possibly rendering the party toxic and unelectable for the foreseeable future.

The fact that Frank Portelli owes money to a major bank and is plagued by financial problems resulting from the closing down of the St Philip’s hospital, weakens his leadership credentials.

Still, Portelli’s main aim may well be that of giving a new lease of life to conservatism in his party rather than winning the contest. He may have already succeeded in shifting the debate.

Fear factor

Probably Labour would celebrate any inroads made by Portelli in his party as signs of the PN’s anachronistic appeal.

His improbable election would see Labour being directly challenged from the right on issues like migration, for the first time since Muscat was elected to power.

For while Muscat himself had used the migration card against the Gonzi administration, in government he found a decent Busuttil who refrained from making any capital on this issue.

The election of a hawkish PN leader may create some tension among the Labour grass roots, which have so far been reined in by a balancing act between hawkish posturing and the opening up of the economy to an influx of foreign workers.

If Portelli does get a sizeable protest vote, the temptation for a future PN leader to use the migration trump card may grow.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...