raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

The only way is back...

The leadership election of any party is decided by an internal vote: in this case, 1,500 'party councillors'. What might their priorities be?

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
5 September 2017, 7:30am
From left to right: Alex Perici Calascione, Adrian Delia, Frank Portelli and Chris Said
From left to right: Alex Perici Calascione, Adrian Delia, Frank Portelli and Chris Said
We all know the score with this type of ‘election weekend’ article. I am writing it before the vote has actually been taken; and you are reading it after the (preliminary) result is already known.

This, of course, is true of any article published on the Sunday after any election. It’s what makes election-weekend newspapers so spectacularly trite and unhelpful. By definition, they cannot supply any information about the result, or anything else that would be in high priority demand on the day. So we usually have to be content with headlines about the ‘latest voter turn-out statistics’ – long after the polling booths have closed, and the count is already almost done.

Here, however, the landscape is slightly different. Unlike general, local or European elections, the leadership election of any party is decided by an internal vote: in this case, to be taken by 1,500 ‘party councillors’. We have no polls to give us even a remote indication of what these 1,500 people might actually be thinking... what sort of person they (as opposed to you or I) would consider a ‘good leader’ in the current climate; or what their priorities may be when it comes to rebuilding or rebranding the party.

Making any form of prediction under such circumstances becomes a perfectly pointless exercise. I don’t think I have ever seen such a wide open contest in any local political scenario.

Consider Thursday’s debate, for instance. On paper, it would normally be considered ‘political suicide’ for a PN leadership contestant to spend most of his allotted time slagging off the PN’s administrative structures.  Yet this is what both Adrian Delia and (even more so) Frank Portelli chose to do. (Note: I am the first to admit that puns about the latter’s name have lost some of their sheen through overuse. But let’s be honest: Frank was frank. No doubt about it.)

As for Delia, he practically spelt out the current malaise with the PN in no uncertain terms. At every point he emphasised a street-level sensation that some great big monumental ‘change’ is on the way: a ‘change’ which is urgently desired by the masses, but blocked at every opportunity by the ‘hidden hand’ behind the throne.

I will come to what sort of ‘change’ in a moment... but there can be no denying that Delia is right, if only about the mood among several thousand Nationalist supporters right now.

It is clear as daylight that a sizeable chunk of the PN’s support-base is sick and tired of the current party ‘establishment’ – including, but not limited to, its administrative structures – in the same way as the electorate grew sick and tired of Nationalist governments after 25 years. And we can all see with our own two eyes that the same establishment is hell-bent on retaining its grip on the party... to the extent that the administrative council even urged Delia to withdraw from the contest altogether (thus eliminating any real ‘choice’ from this election).

"It is little short of astounding that an outgoing leader should blatantly try to influence the outcome of an election being held to replace him"
This, too, is something that wouldn’t be expected to happen on paper. Same goes for Simon Busuttil’s intervention: it is little short of astounding that an outgoing leader should so blatantly try to influence the outcome of an election which is being held to replace... himself. (Though I’ll admit it has precedents in the wider world: Tony Blair tried to do the same thing to Jeremy Corbyn... and just look how that turned out).

A lot of other things happened that made this an utterly unique leadership election. Like the PN’s electoral commission telling us that it had no responsibility in vetting the candidates at application stage. Erm... excuse me, but if the job of organising a leadership election does not fall to the electoral commission... whose job is it? Why, the PN’s, of course. ‘The party’ should have vetted the candidates... as if the PN’s ‘electoral commission’ is not part of that ‘party’ at all.

I hate to say it, but this chimes in perfectly with previous statements by a certain former PN treasurer, who told us that ‘the PN’s financial situation was not the treasurer’s responsibility’.  Both cases point towards an increasingly undeniable fact: that the PN’s structures exist for purely cosmetic purposes, and that the real decision-making power lies elsewhere.

And what is that, if not the exact same malaise that both Delia and Portelli took pains to describe last Thursday?

All the same: this tells us plenty about the precise nature of the battle-lines drawn between the contestants... but nothing at all about how those 1,500 councillors might be viewing the situation. Even from my own position, way outside the epicentre, I can see that it is hardly an easy choice. That is why I tried watching that debate exclusively from the point of view of one of those 1,500: asking myself, at every point, how an imaginary PN councillor may or may not interpret what he or she was hearing.

Obviously, that depends on what PN councillors actually want out of this contest: which is very different from what you or I might want if we were in their place. One message that emerged loud and clear from all four contestants (both Delia and Said closed their final statements with it) is that the PN wants to ‘return to winning ways’.  It is tired of losing; it wants a leader that can take them back – back, please note – to the formulas that used to win them elections in the past.

If that were the only consideration, the winner would be easy enough to pick. The councillors know from experience that ‘the fight against Labour’ has only ever been won by combative, resilient leaders. People who show they are not afraid of adversity, who stand on their own two feet, who fight back when cornered, and who have the gift of the gab to boot. They would have seen all those qualities in Adrian Delia... ironically, because he was forced into precisely that position by the same party structures that tried to annihilate him altogether.

Naturally, they will see other things as well. They will know that Delia was not, as he claimed, given a ‘clean bill of health’ at all by the PN ethics committee. Far from it, his answers to questions about his (or his client’s) offshore account were ‘unsatisfactory’. And let’s not forget the unanimous censure by the administrative council. The councillors might view that as an intolerable attempt to rig the election in the establishment’s favour (as, no doubt, Delia’s supporters will forever see it). But they might just as easily agree wholeheartedly, and by now have rejected Adrian Delia with equal unanimity.

It all depends on exactly how much importance they will give to each individual consideration. And that, at present, is something entirely hidden from view... not unlike this mysterious ‘hand’ that somehow keeps tripping up all the contestants in this election, except one.

Speaking of whom: in Chris Said, the PN councillors will no doubt see other, equally important leadership qualities. He comes across as stolid and dependable; he has a proven track record in government; he is shrewd and wily (which make pretty good alternatives to ‘combative and resilient’, when it comes to winning elections). And he is also generally likeable, which never hurts.

The way this election has shaped itself up, however, Chris Said has undeniably been cast in the role of ‘continuity’ leader. Perhaps unwisely (but then again, who knows?) he even said so himself: with his declaration that he would ‘continue the work started by Simon Busuttil’.

So it’s a tough choice, isn’t it? On one hand you have a charismatic warhorse with an evidently enthusiastic grassroots following.... but who also seems to have an entire collection of dinosaur fossils in his cupboard. And on the other, a squeaky-clean career politician who just happens to be the obvious favourite... of an ‘establishment’ that seems destined to keep losing elections forever.

But the really difficult part of the decision is another. How does one ‘return to winning ways’, anyhow? It’s not as though you can just press a button, and... Bingo! Electoral victory guaranteed...

I listened long and hard to all four contestants’ answers to this question – always trying to maintain that imaginary councillor’s perspective – and what emerged was... scary, to say the least.

Adrian Delia’s vision, in a nutshell, is to go back to the PN of the 1980s. Like the other three, he simply returned to what he (mistakenly, it must be said) thinks are the ‘founding principles’ of his party, and promised to make them as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. How many times have we heard those words before? ‘A party that looks after its own’; ‘a party that remembers who the real enemy is’; ‘a party that listens to the hurts of its own members’...

In other words, a party that defines its existence only by eternal opposition to Labour – and not by any actual ideology of its own – and which maintains its support largely through clientelism.

To me, that is an utterly horrifying vision... far more grievous in its implications that any number of hidden offshore accounts. It will drag us all kicking and screaming right back to the worst times in our recent political history. How can such a thing possibly be described as a ‘New Way’?

But to a PN councillor? Right now? I don’t know. Let us not underestimate the power of nostalgia, when combined with hunger for political power.

This might explain why the other three all said roughly the same thing. With Alex Perici Calascione, it was ‘returning to Fehmiet Bazici’. With Frank Portelli, ‘Back to Basics’. With Chris Said, it was ‘reaffirming the party’s core principles’.

What do all four of those visions have in common? A return to some glorious, forgotten past. It never occurs to them that, if the past was ‘glorious’, it was precisely because their predecessors had worked hard to transform the party... not to leave it as it was, still less to take it back in time.

And if it’s ‘forgotten’ today... well, there might be a perfectly good reason for that, too.