Why Adrian Delia can still win, in spite of everything

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a party leader – either Nationalist or Labour – who has had to contend with even a fraction of the hurdles and obstacles that have beset Adrian Delia since 2017

And I really do mean ‘everything’, by the way. For make no mistake: in all the years I’ve been following Maltese politics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a party leader – either Nationalist or Labour – who has had to contend with even a fraction of the hurdles and obstacles that have beset Adrian Delia since 2017… mostly (if not entirely) put in his path by members of his own party.

In the three years he’s been PN leader, Adrian Delia has lost two elections (local and MEP) on the trot, both by increasing margins of defeat; and subsequent surveys suggest that his popularity has nosedived even further ever since.

He has meanwhile also lost the backing of a sizeable majority within his own parliamentary group (if he ever even had it to begin with); and more recently, two votes of confidence in quick succession… which also implies that he managed to somehow lose even the support of some of his most faithful loyalists.

Now, according to the latest polls, he may have lost the support of the General Council, too: i.e., the one thing that has consistently enabled him to hold onto his position so tenaciously, against so many odds, for so long.

So, short of his own marbles – and (let’s face it) there are indications that he may be starting to lose those, too – it is hard to even imagine what more Adrian Delia also stands to lose as a result of his astonishing obstinacy in clinging to the PN leadership at all costs, and regardless of all adversity or consequence.

But… well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Incredibly, despite a seemingly never-ending series of personal and political defeats… Adrian Delia is still very much in place, as leader of both the Opposition and the Nationalist Party: having survived almost as many plots to oust him, as Fidel Castro had survived assassination attempts by the CIA.

It almost reminds me of the words of Elrond Halfelven from ‘The Lord of The Rings’ (before another all-important council meeting, as I recall): ‘And yet, to have come so far, still bearing the Ring, the hobbit has shown extraordinary resilience to its evil…”

Let me repeat one small part of that (and no, not ‘hobbit’): ‘extraordinary resilience’.

If nothing else, those words certainly apply to Adrian Delia… and I honestly don’t think the same can be said for any other Maltese politician (at least, not in the memory of recent generations.)

Meanwhile, the truly gob-smacking aspect is that even now - with so very much working against him – there is still a fair chance that Adrian Delia might go on to survive this latest assault on his leadership: at a time when his ‘list of allies’ – to continue the same Elrond quote – ‘grows thin’.

Admittedly, a great deal depends on what happens between now, and when (or if) the General Council decides to call another leadership election. But even though much of that lies hidden from view, a couple of small predictions can still be safely made.

One simple one is that Delia will not manage to win Friday’s vote of confidence in the PN General Council…  not, at least, when internal polls indicate that he only has the backing of 41% of the council (down from 67%, at the last vote).

Another is that, if he does lose that vote, attempts will once again be made to dissuade Delia from re-contesting any future PN leadership election: just as had happened when he first decided to throw his hat into the ring, way back in summer 2017.

From this point on, however, the predictions become a little less obvious.

I myself find it highly unlikely that he will be persuaded not to contest: in the first place, because Adrian Delia has already shown, time and time again, precisely how impervious he can be to setbacks such as this; but more importantly, because the same mathematics that make it almost impossible for him to survive Friday’s vote, also suggest that he might stand a fairly good chance if it really does come to a fully-fledged leadership contest.

This brings me to the first of many factors that may yet work to his advantage.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his opponents seem to making a few very predictable mistakes: for instance, that of assuming that the 46% of PN councillors who now want Delia out, would also be willing to back any of the so-called ‘rebel candidates’ on the mere basis that he or she is ‘not Adrian Delia’.

Another, even more serious mistake is to assume that the same 46% is somehow representative of a much larger contingent – the ‘tesserati’ – who will be called in take the actual decision itself.

Taken together, these factors suggest that Adrian Delia’s biggest asset is not his own support within the structures of the party… but rather, the apparent failure of the rebel cohort to recognize that – overwhelmingly – the best tactic to get rid of Adrian Delia, once and for all, would have been to throw their combined weight behind a single candidate from the start.

This would, de facto, have reduced the contest to a straight choice between ‘Adrian Delia’, and ‘not Adrian Delia’: thus swinging the balance firmly back in the rebels’ favour.

And yet, all present indications point towards a multiplicity of candidates now vying to take his place: of whom at least three – Theresa Commodini Cachia, Bernard Grech and Mark Anthony Sammut – have strongly hinted that they will contest; with another three – Roberta Metsola, Joe Giglio and Alex Perici Calascione – understood to be weighing their options.

Even if only two or three of those go on to actually contest, it would change the dynamics completely.

Suddenly, that all-important 46% would have to be further subdivided into two or more segments… with the overwhelming likelihood that no single candidate would be able to beat Delia’s otherwise measly 41%.

At least, for the first round of voting. In reality, however, the nature of PN’s leadership battles is such that the initial contenders (however many there may originally be) will be whittled to only two for a second round.

And assuming, for argument’s sake, that Delia will be one of those two (note: I wouldn’t put too much money on it myself, but the same statistics do suggest the probability is rather high)… this would take us right back to the original, binary choice of ‘for’ or ‘against’ the present leader.

On the surface, this would seem to annul any advantage the fragmentation of his opposition may hold for Delia right now… but in practice, it may actually work the other way.

This is partly because the ‘whittling’ process, in itself, is likely to exacerbate any personal or political animosities that may already exist between rival candidates in the ‘not-Delia’ camp.

Time and again, we have seen how the outcome of any party leadership election (same goes for Labour, by the way) often boils down to whom the unsuccessful candidates go on to support, after crashing out of the contest in round one.

For instance, Joseph Muscat would not have won against George Abela in 2008, had a majority of support for failed candidates in that election (e.g., Evarist Bartolo, Marie-Louise Coleiro, etc.) not gone to him in the second round.

Applied to this scenario, this also means that the ability of the Round 2 rebel contestant to actually beat Adrian Delia (always assuming he’s still in the race) would by then have to hinge on two factors:

1) How successfully the rebel camp manages to reunite, after its initial show of disunity. And if the same faction proved unable to get behind a single candidate from day one – thus sparing itself this very dilemma from the outset – how much less likely will that possibility be, after a gruelling contest in which the anti-Delia contingent would also have to compete against itself?

2) The surviving candidate’s ability to go head-to-head with Adrian Delia in a final round of campaigning/debating…

… and it is here that Adrian Delia clearly has the upper hand. For unlike most, if not all, of his opponents… Delia has had to actually fight to get to where he is today; and even more so, he has had to fight even harder to stay there.

And he had to fight against absolutely everything, too: the party establishment, the rebels, his own allies, the independent media… everything.

The rest, on the other hand? With the exception of one or two ‘unknown quantities’ in the mix, most have always had the luxury of always relying on the automatic, unquestioned support of all those things.

And while they may be very successful indeed, in other areas of life… unlike Adrian Delia, they are not what you can realistically call ‘fighters’.

This, too, is among the reasons why Delia seems to keep winning this war, against all odds, and despite losing every single battle.

For let’s face it: we’re talking about ‘winning’ here. And you cannot realistically expect to win, without at least putting up a little fight.