The prayer we need to be reciting

I believe that Grech has had all the good intention in the world in taking up the PN leadership, but I see neither savoir-faire nor sophistication in trying to resurrect the party as it once was

My last piece on the PN’s woes last week was entitled, somewhat boldly – ‘Bernard has to go’. Published and damned, I received numerous messages congratulating me about what I had said, including some former Nationalist and present MPs. Of course, there were the usual negative retorts. 

I have no regrets writing what I wrote. But perhaps I should have been clearer about one thing: Grech should serve as an interim leader until a new leader comes forward. Indeed, I should have said that too. 

Labour wants Bernard Grech to stay on. They also want former MPs Jason Azzopardi and Karol Aquilina to win the casual elections. To Labour they are assets that keep their own voters in a combative spirit, kicking back against their missives. 

They want to see more in-fighting inside the PN. They want the PN torn internally over a debate about who their next leader should be. But the vast majority of level-headed people want a strong Nationalist party. They want a viable alternative and a healthy opposition. 

Yesterday, some 60 minutes before the arrival of the Pope, Bernard Grech made his first official statement after the elections of last Sunday, by telephone call to PN radio station Net FM – six days after a week of absolute silence. 

The timing was remarkable, if not extraordinarily idiotic. It was obviously intended to benefit from the fact that the people’s attention yesterday was focused on the papal visit, being sick and tired of the election. And it was not a TV appearance, but a quick phone-call to the party radio station, reporting some basic messages to keep spirits up: that the PN was still relevant with its 123,000 votes; that the PN had to understand that 20% of the electorate that did not vote: “My message has always been that my mission is to unite the party, which I think I have managed to achieve, and to renew it – the electorate has responded to this positively, by electing new candidates. This election has allowed the PN to regenerate with new MPs, and this process will continue.” 

But it takes some gall to attempt to gloat that the PN is united. Not when the first day of the election campaign saw four established MPs calling it a day, an announcement that left a clear dent on voter turnout in their districts – chiefly the 1st district, and the PN’s woes in the south. 

I believe that Grech has had all the good intention in the world in taking up the PN leadership. But I see neither savoir-faire nor sophistication in trying to resurrect the party as it once was. Nowhere in any parliamentary democracy, does a party lose once, twice, three times in incremental landslide losses and declares: “Sure, it’s ok... let’s stand by our leader and give it another try.” 

The reason we need a strong opposition party is clear to everyone. And that brings with it important questions: did the electorate reject a ‘centre-right’ opposition? Was its leader the problem? Was it the party ethos? The party’s electoral programme? Did the party take no political risks? Or is it something we still cannot read? 

To start with, the leader does not only need to be a good communicator and visionary, but also someone who understands the culture of Maltese politics. And the ethos or in simple terms, the attitude of the party, must change. This feeling of self-entitlement and the ingrained belief that the other side are a bunch of corrupt cretins, has to stop once and for all. The party’s political programme has to recalibrate itself to the times and the changing face of Maltese society. 

The Nationalist Party refuses to take political risks. For example on cannabis, it was not clear whether it was a yes or a no; on the Gozo tunnel the same confusion reigned and the list went on. 

This week, the future of the Nationalist Party should have been the major debate. But it is not happening, or at least, not in the intelligent way it should be taking place. 

I have nothing against Grech. I know he is hardworking and a well-meaning guy, but maybe the PN leadership is not really for him. The next man or woman to take the PN to its next challenge, the European election in 2024, is not Bernard Grech. The first six months at the PN’s helm must be spent figuring out what needs to be done over the next years, and it will have to be done with the brain and muscle of both past and present. It will require an overhaul of its problematic statute. And it will also need the full input of the new faces elected, which might even provide that very candidate to lead the party into 2024. 

Say a prayer for the Nationalist Party. Perhaps, the Roman Pontiff could oblige with a thought for Malta’s opposition as well...