From Fenech Adami’s cigar jibe, to the outsider’s challenge

This time round, after two landslide electoral victories for the Labour party and Joseph Muscat, the resounding message in the PN’s grassroots has been for the party to be led by a complete outsider

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Saviour Balzan
4 September 2017, 7:58am
Guido de Marco and Eddie Fenech Adami: leadership rivals who then became the PN’s deputy leader and leader respectively, forming an alliance that kept the party’s broad church together
Guido de Marco and Eddie Fenech Adami: leadership rivals who then became the PN’s deputy leader and leader respectively, forming an alliance that kept the party’s broad church together
Elections for party leaders are hardly ever without drama or intrigue, but the run-up to this election for leader of the Nationalist Party is a far cry from the elections held so far.

In 1977 the leadership campaign to replace Gorg Borg Olivier saw two main contenders. Guido de Marco, at the time the most sought after criminal de- fence lawyer in Malta, and another lawyer, Eddie Fenech Adami, who had just attained the third highest number of first count votes after Mintoff and Borg Olivier in the 1976 election.

In one his meetings, De Marco, who joined the Nationalist Party from Herbert Ganado’s Partit Demokratiku Nazzjonali, recounted a narrative of Chamberlain and Churchill – the appeaser and the winner. He argued that “Malta needed a Winston Churchill”. Guido’s parallels were clear: Labour leader Dom Mintoff was Hitler, Chamberlain was Fenech Adami and Churchill was De Marco himself.

Soon after, at one of his own campaign meetings, Fenech Adami referred to the parable indirectly by stating that it was easy to be a Churchill. In deadpan fashion, he pulled out a sizeable cigar, lit it and smoked it right in front of his audience, who laughed away at the expense of De Marco.

Fenech Adami was elected leader but instead of discarding his main rival he embraced De Marco as his deputy leader in a sign of unique magnanimity. He went on to be become the longest serving prime minister, winning five elections for the PN, though he was Opposition leader in the 1981-87 legislature, having won the highest number of votes in the 1981 election, but Mintoff winning the majority of seats in parliament.

The trend ended in 2004, with three contestants, Lawrence Gonzi, a former Speaker of the House and social affairs minister, and finance minister John Dalli and education minister Louis Galea.

Gonzi won 59.3% to John Dalli’s 25.3% and Galea’s 15.4%. Dalli faced unusual quizzing from the Xarabank and Bondiplus programmes on TVM, and was under the spotlight by the traditional English-language press. When he did lose, he accused the party machinery headed by Joe Saliba, then secretary- general, of supporting Gonzi by planting new councillors with a vote for Gonzi – the accusation would resurface over and over again.

The bitterness between Gonzi and Dalli remained until the end, and worsened after Gonzi supported Tonio Borg for the post of deputy leader. Later Dalli would say that after coming second in the 2004 leadership contest, he would have been more than willing to be part of the PN leadership.

Before the 2013 election, Simon Busuttil returned from Brussels to run for deputy leader instead of Tonio Borg, now kicked up to the European Commission to replace the sacked John Dalli. He was elected PN deputy leader after a convincing performance which saw him obtain 640 votes out of 884, garnering the required two-thirds of the votes, 72% of votes against finance minister Tonio Fenech’s 241 votes. Busuttil was clearly chosen by Gonzi to be at his side in the upcoming election.

After the 2013 election, Gonzi resigned, and Busuttil went on to become the new PN leader after winning 50.3%, or 451 votes of 897 votes cast, in the first round of the party’s leadership contest. Mario de Marco came second with 38.5% (345 votes) of the vote, Francis Zammit Dimech got 6% (54) and outsider Ray Bugeja came in last with 5.2% (47).

Busuttil became the new leader of the Nationalist Party, with 93% or 802 yes votes, 18 invalid votes and 61 no votes. This was the second round of the leadership election.

This time round, after two landslide electoral victories for the Labour party and Joseph Muscat, the resounding message in the PN’s grassroots has been for the party to be led by a complete outsider.

Adrian Delia was just that: he entered the fray as a complete outsider. He succeeded in winning the official support of four MPs but not of the rest. Crucial- ly, one of the MPs who supported him was Jean Pierre Debono, who also serves as PN Assistant Secretary General, with a responsibility for the councillors. He also roped in the support of the media-savvy Pierre Portelli, a former PN employee who is now director at The Malta Independent. Portelli is respected by many councillors who see him as secretary-general material.

On the other hand, Delia has had to face the implacable resentment of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who has waged an unusual surprising war against him on his track record in business deals. And there has also been the clear opposition of PN leader Simon Busuttil. But such is the feeling of despair in the PN’s ranks that even the offshore revelations on Delia’s services to Maltese businessmen in Soho, may have had little or no effect on him.

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Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...