Now is not a time to rush

Leaders can be easily and quickly chosen, but to come up with a genuinely inspiring political agenda is a different matter

22 June 2017, 7:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Electoral post-mortems are never easy or enjoyable for the losing party: all the same, they are an important exercise if the intention is pick up the pieces and turn one’s electoral fortunes around.

By now, everyone has had their say about the election result; all while the individual analyses and commentaries may differ in the detail, they all seem to converge on the need for a thorough rebranding: to go back to the drawing board, as it were, and rebuild the party structures from the ground up. By definition, this would require a serious rethink on where the PN went wrong in recent years... possibly, the party may even have to revisit its core principles, and come together to forge a new political identity.

The importance of extending the timeline for the leadership contest is also to ensure that the membership is no way influenced by the established committees in party clubs, which have held their office for too long a time and may not understand the importance of renovating the party.

Clearly, these are decisions that have to be taken carefully. Yet the PN seems to be in a hurry to get its leadership contest under way as quickly as possible. This week, the party executive announced that it would be accepting nominations until the end of July; these will be narrowed down to a short-list of only two candidates in the first week of August. After that, the leadership election will take place in September, in time for the annual Independence day festivities. Other leadership posts will also be filled over the same time period.

Of course, it is up to the Nationalist Party to establish the parameters to elect its own leader; no one can realistically contest that. All the same, to an external observer the process appears to be somewhat hurried.   

On a surface level, the choice of timing means that the campaigning for the leadership contest will have to take place throughout August – a time of year known as ‘the silly season’, when the country habitually switches off from its usual political mode. And unlike former PN leadership contests, this time the new leader will be chosen by a much larger voter-base. Contestants will not only have to campaign over a very short period at the hottest time of the year; they will also have to convince a lot more delegates than usual.

Even without the heat of August to contend with, the short timeframe for this contest severely limits the opportunities for serious internal debate. While the choice of a new leader is pivotal for the party, the PN also needs to confront its internal factions and divisions. It would be naive to ignore the fact that different groups of people represent different interests within that party, and that these interests are not always compatible. Ideologically, there are two contrasting attitudes towards civil liberties and so-called ‘ethical issues’ (gay marriage, IVF, the morning after pill, etc). Such polarities are not unheard of, and one cannot expect a party like the PN to conform only to one side of this spectrum. But these issues have never been properly thrashed out; this alone may explain part of the PN’s current identity crisis.

There are also individual power-bases within the party. For a long time, the PN has been criticised (often from within its own ranks) for allowing its decision-making structures to be ‘hijacked’ by one group or another. Needless to add, this has a direct bearing on the choice of new leader.

Ideally, the Nationalist Party should confront these inner demons before electing its new leader, not afterwards. Perhaps more so than any other recent leadership election, this contest therefore represents a genuine opportunity to evolve beyond such internal divisions. Clearly, the old order within the PN is now crumbling... and, as with the experience of the Labour Party – which took a long time to transition from the Mintoff era to its present, considerably different identity – the PN needs time for its newer generations to set their stamp on the party. Rather than fix the date for September, it would perhaps have been more prudent to elect an interim, caretaker leader for now, and target the real leadership contest for early next year: for instance, February or March.  This would give ample opportunity to conduct a far more comprehensive debate; and even to give individual contestants enough time to establish their vision for the party, and also to build up the necessary internal and external networks to be able to realise that vision, if successful.

Ultimately it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Ideally, there should be broad consensus on the party’s identity, vision and values... then the party chooses a leader which best fits the desired profile. But in practice, it rarely works that way. As a rule, a new leader establishes his or her own vision, and the rest of the party follows suit.

Either way, however, the truly important aspect is the choice of vision and direction. Whether the new leader imposes this vision, or is the product of it, is incidental really. It is the vision that will have to invigorate and inspire a disillusioned generation of Nationalist voters... and even more importantly, convince new voters to trust it.

Leaders can be easily and quickly chosen. But to come up with a genuinely inspiring political agenda is a different matter; such decisions should never be rushed.