‘Bringing down the government’ should not be the Opposition’s aim

The allegations which prompted the early election remain, as yet, unproven. If it transpires that they were inaccurate or untrue, ‘bringing down his government’ under those circumstances is tantamount to an affront to democracy itself

28 June 2017, 8:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Coping with electoral defeat is never going to be an easy task. This is especially true when a party loses by such a wide margin.

But there is more to electoral post-mortems than merely analysing where one’s campaign went wrong. Part of the process should also include a revision of the role of the losing party within the greater apparatus of Maltese party politics.

Though defeated, the Nationalist Party (together with its coalition partner, PD) remains the country’s only Opposition in Parliament. Technically, Simon Busuttil is still party leader until a replacement is chosen in September. If he decides to contest the leadership election – a possibility he has so far ruled out – he may be reconfirmed in his current position. 

Until then, however, the PN (and Opposition) leadership is overshadowed by a question mark. The role may not formally exist within the structures of the PN... but this uncertainty alone should really make Busuttil the party leader in a caretaker capacity only. Having declared his intention to step down before the leadership election, he should also take a step back, and not be as public and outspoken during this period.

Maybe a comparison is due with the changeover of the US Presidency. The US elections are held in November, but the new president only takes office in January. In the meantime, the outgoing president does not commit to any major policies or make any binding agreements, statements, etc., so as not to bind the incoming president. 

Perhaps Busuttil should adopt the same stance. By making public statements, during what is effectively a changeover period, is he committing his successor?

In the same spirit, should Busuttil still hold public meetings, or weekly interviews, as he did on Sunday on Radio 101?

Naturally, one cannot expect an outgoing party leader to impose upon himself an ‘oath of silence’. Busuttil has every right to speak publicly – indeed, his contribution to a debate on the election result is not just opportune but also necessary – but he would do well to remember that, under the circumstances, he cannot speak in the capacity of PN leader in anything but name.

Moreover, he would also be wise to choose his words more carefully. 

Busuttil has repeatedly been quoted as saying that “we have brought the government down” (waqqajna l-gvern) after four years. 

It is understandable that he should seek consolation from such a devastating defeat, but his claim can hardly be taken seriously. 

Yes, the government did call an election after four years of its five-year term... and it was no doubt thanks to pressure applied by the PN and its allies. But the fact remains that the PN still lost that election by a landslide. Indeed, it strengthened Muscat’s majority... and with it, his electoral mandate.

Besides, it is worth remembering that the allegations which prompted the early election remain, as yet, unproven. If it transpires that they were inaccurate or untrue, Busuttil’s boast may well return to haunt him. 

Forcing a government to end its term early, on the basis of an untruth, is not exactly something to be proud of. Muscat was elected to serve five years: ‘bringing down his government’, under those circumstances, is tantamount to an affront to democracy itself.

Meanwhile, there is also the question of how the PN intends to proceed in future. So far, Adrian Delia (president of Birkirkara FC) and Gozo MP Chris Said have been the first (and to date only) candidates to announce that they will be contesting the PN leadership contest. 

Delia, an outsider to the party’s inner core, is as yet an unknown quantity: he has yet to outline his vision for the renewal of the party.

On the other hand, Said is a seasoned politician who served as minister under Lawrence Gonzi and who led the party’s restructuring after the 2013 defeat as secretary-general. 

No doubt other candidates will present themselves in due course. The point is that the PN may find itself faced with a choice of a number of candidates, each promising to take the party in markedly different directions.

We got an indication of this possibility this week, when former PN minister Tonio Fenech weighed in against the PN’s decision to ratify the marriage Equality Act. Fenech has called on MPs to use their conscience when voting and saying that the PN should reconsider its promise to vote in favour of the bill. Separately, there have been demands for a free vote on the issue.

Clearly there is internal division on this issue, as there was with divorce and other comparable issues. It is likely that these divisions will be reflected in the leadership choice next September. If so, the contest will prove to be a definitive battle for the identity and soul of the Nationalist Party.

All this places Busuttil in an uncomfortable position. It could be argued that our Parliamentary structures should also be redefined, so as to give the caretaker Opposition time to elect a new leader. As things stand, controversial bills (however necessary these may be) have to be debated in parliament by an Opposition which is in a state of flux, and unable to commit to any position for longer than a few months.

There is a flaw in the system. It would make more sense for Parliament as a whole to also pass through a similar changeover period.