The PN’s future in the balance

The 1970s and 1980s were a time that called for increased militancy. Today, the electorate is attuned to less warlike, more conciliatory political rhetoric than yesteryear

15 June 2017, 7:36am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Electoral defeats are never easy to come to terms with, but they also provide opportunities for a party to evolve, and even – in the long term – to strengthen.

But much depends on whether the defeated party takes on board the lessons from any given election. From this perspective, the Nationalist Party appears to be at a pivotal moment in its history. Decisions taken today may well prove instrumental to the party’s (as yet uncertain) future.

Much has been written in terms of post-electoral analysis. Opinions differ as to the precise reasons for Labour’s overwhelming majority; but all accounts seem to converge on the fact that the electorate – for the second time running, and by an even wider majority – simply rejected the Nationalist Party as a credible alternative government in its current state.

To argue that voters endorsed Labour because they care little about corruption – or because they were ‘bought’ by the power of incumbency – comes across as an act of self-deception. That a certain number of votes were swayed by jobs or permits is almost beyond question – it happens with every election – but it cannot account for the fact that an unprecedented 170,000 voters chose Joseph Muscat over Simon Busuttil. They cannot all have been bought; nor can they all be realistically described as ‘mistaken’ or ‘deceived’.

Unless the PN takes stock of this reality, it will only be repeating the same mistake of 2013. Then as now, a state of denial seemed to reign over the party. The PN seemed reluctant to acknowledge that its own blemishes and failures had made it unattractive to the Maltese electorate.

There are many reasons for this state of fact; and to be fair, they are not all down to any decisions or strategies adopted directly by the party leadership. A close analysis of polls and surveys over the last decade will reveal that the party began its descent into freefall soon after the 2003 election. All else being equal, it would have lost in 2008. It was only the PL’s fateful mistake in retaining Alfred Sant that enabled it to cling to power by a whisker.

The year is significant. Before 2003, the PN had invested most of its political capital in the ‘European project’. It was an immensely successful gamble that paid off handsome dividends... both for the country, and for the party. But it was also the last time the Nationalist party could appeal to anything outside tribal political allegiance, in a bid to convince voters who would not normally vote PN.

Fourteen years later, the PN appears to be struggling in the absence of any clear raison d’etre. This emerged strongly in its rhetoric during this campaign. The PN’s message was rooted in a strong sense of ‘us-against-them’. It reminded us of unfortunate recent slogans such as ‘Labour make you ashamed of your country, PN make you proud.’ 

Nor did the issue of ‘good governance’ necessarily strike the same note as former battle cries, such as the struggle for democracy in the 1980s, or to join the EU two decades later. The PN seems to be stranded at a high tide of history: it can only hark back to past accomplishments, in the deluded hope that these may continue convincing voters even after the causes themselves have since vanished.

Clearly, then, the changes the PN now has to undergo to reinvent itself cannot be limited only to the choice of a new leader. A new leader with the same vision, and suffering from the same flawed perceptions, cannot achieve a different result. What is needed is a return to the basics: the Nationalist Party must rebrand itself according to the exigencies of today... and not on the basis of some romantic notion it has of itself (a notion that is clearly not shared by an ever-growing majority).

To do this, it must first confront the challenge it avoided confronting in 2013. Even before questioning why it so clearly struggles to convince voters from across the divide, the PN must ask itself why so many of its own supporters have abandoned it in droves since 2003.

Its own recent history will prove a useful reminder. The precise circumstances may be vastly different, but the PN today finds itself in a similar situation as 1976... when a younger and energetic Dom Mintoff had just won his second term, leaving the PN’s leadership looking tired and obsolete.

On that occasion, the party found the courage to take difficult decisions. Apart from a change in leadership style, the party re-examined its roots, its ethos and its position within the political spectrum: moving towards the left, in a bid to re-position itself so it could take the fight to where Mintoff was strong.

Having said this, there are differences. The 1970s and 1980s were a time that called for increased militancy. Today, the electorate is attuned to less warlike, more conciliatory political rhetoric than yesteryear. The PN must acknowledge that its aggression and militancy worked against it in this election. 

But a new political style requires a compelling political narrative within which to flourish. It is the narrative that has to change first.