Building the electoral machine for 2018

The PN cannot go to the polls in 2018 without a well-oiled electoral machine… a huge challenge because electoral campaigns cost money

Outgoing secretary-general Chris Said (top right) and former secretaries-general Joe Saliba (left) and Paul Borg Olivier: the next person in charge must have political acumen, gravitas, maturity and experience
Outgoing secretary-general Chris Said (top right) and former secretaries-general Joe Saliba (left) and Paul Borg Olivier: the next person in charge must have political acumen, gravitas, maturity and experience

It won’t be easy for the Nationalist Party to find a suitable replacement for outgoing secretary-general Chris Said. The bold Gozitan politician is well known for his excellent organisational and communication skills, political acumen and shrewdness.

In his two-year stint as secretary-general, having inherited a Nationalist Party with massive challenges – after two decades in government – Said had a tall order. Notable among his challenges were those of addressing the party’s financial situation and, together with party leader Simon Busuttil and deputy leaders Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami, rebuilding the PN – at times from scratch after a catastrophic defeat at the polls. 

He managed to do both successfully while helping the PN to halve the gap with Labour in Labour’s strongholds in the south of Malta at the last round of local council elections. Apart from his role as secretary-general, he doubled as the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Gozo.

It was impossible for Said to juggle the two positions successfully. With Giovanna Debono and Frederick Azzopardi having declared their intention not to contest the general election – but failing to call it a day from Parliament and allow new blood in [wrong decisions which political parties should not tolerate – once a politician decides to call it a day, that should be it – and the immediate step should be to give up the Parliamentary seat] – a huge political void was created which Said, busy rebuilding the PN and putting its house in order, could not fill.

As expected, the PN fared badly in Gozo at the local elections – and the way things unfolded, with Giovanna Debono resigning from the PN Parliamentary Group as a result of her husband being charged with ‘works for votes’ allegations, Simon Busuttil had to urgently address the situation. He did and in so doing chose a sensible way forward by asking Said not to seek another term as secretary-general and instead focus his attention exclusively on Gozo. 

Busuttil’s decision meant that the PN lost a capable secretary-general who is not easy to replace, but in Gozo the PN won by placing one of its best assets where he is needed most. 

Said has no easy task. What was once a ‘natural’ majority for the PN turned decisively Labour in 2013 and remained so at the MEP and at the last round of local elections.

However, with Said on the ground accompanied by new general election candidates, the PN is well placed to turn things round by 2018, although it is an uphill struggle.

The PN is now set to elect a new secretary-general. At the time of writing, a flurry of names are being mentioned in the media, all very valid names.

The way I see it, it is crucial that a secretary-general has good organisational and communication skills.

The PN should not try and replicate another Simon Busuttil, Mario de Marco or Beppe Fenech Adami. Their role is to lead the party and reach out to different segments and sectors of the population. Simon Busuttil is widely seen as the person who is best able to reach out to middle of the road voters – crucial if the PN is to win the next general election. He is also demonstrating that he is capable of reaching out to pale red voters who, for reasons of their own, are already feeling disillusioned with their government and come 2018 might be tempted to vote Labour out of office.

Mario de Marco is considered to be a bridge builder, especially with pale blue voters, the business community and the liberal/progressive voters. De Marco has the charm to attract back traditional PN voters who lost faith in the party.

Beppe Fenech Adami is the darling of the PN core vote and a shrewd political campaigner.

There seems to be widespread consensus that the next secretary-general should not be a general election candidate – allowing him/her ample time to focus exclusively on the party and its electoral machine. The PN cannot go to the polls in 2018 without a well oiled electoral machine – and this is going to be a huge challenge for the party not only because 2018 is a tough hurdle for the PN but also because electoral campaigns cost money.

Faced with these hurdles and financial challenges, the new secretary-general should with immediate effect build a wide pool of volunteers who in the run up to 2018 are willing and able to give their time, energy and ideas to the PN and its electoral machine. For this to happen, the new ecretary-general needs to adopt an open door policy. Rules and regulations hindering enthusiastic young and not so young people from giving their worthwhile contribution to the party is not the way forward if the PN wants to stand a chance of turning things round in three years time. Whoever is at the helm in Tal-Pietà must be a bridge builder who embraces with open arms people of good will who want to help the party. Status quo is not an option. The new secretary-general must be his/her own person. 

Apart from sound organisational skills and being a team player, the PN needs to have a good communicator and a good listener at the Dar Centrali – and above all someone with the right people skills in order to have a good working relationship with the party’s employees. The latter have gone through a lot of organisational changes since the last general election – they now need and deserve to ‘settle down’ and be allowed to carry on with their duties without having to worry that their job is in danger or that further changes [change in roles and positions, which affect them directly] will take place in the foreseeable future.

It is understandable that Simon Busuttil has someone whom he can trust and in whom he can confide as secretary-general – but definitely not a ‘yes’ person. A Secretary-general needs to be bold and assertive, someone who is able to think outside the box and give his/her perspective on the political strategy the PN needs to adopt for the coming years.

Political acumen, gravitas, maturity and experience are essential qualities for the next secretary-general of the Nationalist Party. The person who gets the job, should have a clear foresight of where to take the PN by 2018, and beyond. 

Ultimately, the PN needs to avoid having a secretary-general whose real ambitions are personal. Chris Said sacrificed his political career twice in less than five years – having stepped down from parliamentary secretary pending Court proceedings in his regard, he has now agreed not to seek another term as secretary-general – most probably his being the shortest stint as PN secretary-general in recent times, to focus exclusively on Gozo, where the PN is in deep trouble.

Said should be an example to whoever is to succeed him, and see that in order to deliver successfully the one and only priority should be the wellbeing and interest of the Nationalist Party. Should the PN manage to pull it off in 2018 the new Sscretary-general will be part of a large winning team – but if the PN fails to do so, s/he risks fading into political oblivion. The new PN Secretary-general must be able and willing to take that risk for the party.

Simon Busuttil and his party need to ensure that whoever steps into Said’s shoes is a well meaning person who is there to serve the party’s, not his or her, interests. 

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