Bernard Grech has to go

“No matter how humble Abela claims he will be... we need a new fighting force to keep a powerful government in check

Bernard Grech
Bernard Grech

The size of Labour’s landslide victory had been registered in countless surveys before yesterday’s eletcion.

But with vote abstention and a projected low turnout, the whole game got skewed. You had a direct impact on Labour’s voting cohort, but in the end, it turned out to be the complete opposite.

It made sense that, considering Labour was going into its third legislature (going by previous post-WWII cycles of government), a larger majority wasn’t expected, especially after two super-majorities.

But we forgot one consideration: that the Nationalist Party is run by a group of inexperienced rookies who thought the world of themselves and their strategems. The PN committed too many cardinal mistakes and start tripping in its own feet.

On day one of the campaign, four incumbent MPs quit the party, leaving a massive hole inside the PN and damaging Bernard Grech’s claims of unity (or party renewal for that matter...).  You cannot go to war when four of your stalwarts are quitting. And with Grech’s claim that the party was making way for ‘new blood’, nothing could make less sense than the fact that David Agius, Robert Arrigo, Jason Azzopardi or Karol Aquilina should have called it quits a long time ago then.

And it got worse. The electoral proposals put forward by the PN were fraught with mistakes, giving Labour the opportunity to keep the rival candidates bogged down in clarifying their proposals over and over again, often with inadequate knowledge of their proposals, or explaining costings with a rehearsed retort: “... the costings will be published in due time.”

Then came the quality of PN candidates. Not one candidate could carry the mantle of economy or business spokesperson. Otherwise, it was a young motley of inexperienced spokespersons and self-important lawyers who could not muster simple economic arguments.

The party intentionally put veterans Beppe Fenech Adami and Mario De Marco on the backburner, but in debates they would have been convincing speakers against Labour ministers.

And then there was Bernard Grech, inexperienced in the art of political discourse and unwilling to hit out hard at Robert Abela before the campaign, a tad too soft and perhaps less incisive than his rival. At times, it seemed he was oblivious of the consequences of his proposals, and that contrasted with Abela, who was always quick to revert to facts and figures.

The other fundamental problem was the PN’s choice of head of strategy, Chris Peregin. Undoubtedly his ability in understanding social media dissemination and how to turn some politics into ‘stories’ is not in question. But he is detached from the Maltese electoral landscape, not conversant with a political and electoral culture whose complexity cannot be learnt from the genteel environs of the Maltese middle-class bubble. There’s a dynamic at play with Maltese voters that cannot be resolved by placing people into neat rows of good and bad, popular or unpopular, like or dislike... I’d have to say that the PN itself is not the party he might have thought (or wished) it was.

Grech did intentionally steer away from a negative campaign as well as detachment from the public space occupied by Repubblika’s PN exiles, whose association with the party seems to cost the PN part of its appeal. Grech was certainly advised not to use corruption as a frontline issue; but when he tried to turn up the heat on Abela’s acquisition of his €600,000 Zejtun home, it seems voters could not see past Abela’s business acumen or his dancing close to the brink of ethicality... something the Maltese do not see as a deal-breaker in elections.

So the crisis facing this country now is the need for an Opposition.

No matter how humble Abela claims he will be... we need a new fighting force to keep a powerful government in check.

It must be a completely new team, a new generation of politicians who can move the PN to a space of modern, European, liberal politics – radical, without losing its soul.

It also needs to find another narrative with which to debate corruption and good governance, to stop using Repubblika’s activists, or Manuel Delia and The Shift as their reference points: policies are not built on prejudice.

Grech should take the decision to vacate his post until a new leader is presented for election, because he does not have the leadership qualities to steer the party into its future. The PN needs a fresh face, young, forward-looking, untarnished, and ready to take the bull by the horns and transform this party.

Just take a look at the pundits on Net TV Yesterday: Anne Fenech and Peter Fenech, two successful lawyers who can comfortably look down on the voting masses while defending the PN as if nothing had happened, clearly part of that Simon Busuttil strand of divisive politics.

In his campaign, Robert Abela never once referred to the disgraced figure of Joseph Muscat, the man who brought disrepute to this country and the people who believed in him. Now he has the electoral backing to map out his own political future.

It must serve to ensure that this country can remain a thriving democracy, but that cannot happen without a vibrant opposition and an independent and functioning media.

It will take more than Abela’s humility to see this through.