Where is Simon Busuttil?

The problem for the PN goes beyond Simon Busuttil’s leadership qualities. The PN has never answered the existential questions posed by Muscat’s political earthquake. It has a last chance to do so during the summer lull.

Busuttil’s problem goes beyond his personal charisma: Muscat repositioned Labour as a liberal albeit more cronyist version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party, and electoral cycles in Malta tend to condemn losing parties to 10 years in opposition
Busuttil’s problem goes beyond his personal charisma: Muscat repositioned Labour as a liberal albeit more cronyist version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party, and electoral cycles in Malta tend to condemn losing parties to 10 years in opposition

The sad spectacle offered by Konrad Mizzi receiving a standing ovation from party supporters attending a “government that listens” session not only exposed Joseph Muscat’s sham reshuffle, but reminded us of the ineffectiveness of the Nationalist Party.

Despite all its efforts and the legitimate outrage over Muscat's refusal to sack Mizzi, the PN has failed in eroding the perception that Labour starts as a clear favourite to win the next general election. Polls show the PN narrowing the gap but largely thanks to the abstention of Labour voters who do not seem to be drifting towards the PN in sufficient quantities to trouble Muscat who remains the most trusted leader by a wide margin. 

It is this sense of confidence which gives Muscat the ability to get away with practically everything – including keeping Konrad Mizzi in office. In a perverse way, Panamagate has exposed the limits of the Opposition.

Some Nationalists and switchers I meet blame Simon Busuttil for his lack of charisma and forceful leadership. They ignore the favourable economic conjuncture which benefits the Labour government, namely low oil prices which enabled Labour to honour its pre-electoral pledge on utility bills despite delays on the new power station. 

Yet while Busuttil has tried to give his best, it is increasingly clear that his best might not be enough to restore the fortunes of his party. In my personal experience Busuttil has been the most approachable PN leader I have known. He has also tried to build bridges with the media, civil society, environmental NGOs and professional bodies.  But is he translating this good will in to political capital?

Busuttil is still perceived as a weak leader, a sort of latter day Sisyphus who carries a burden, which may be too heavy for him to bring to the top of the mountain

One can argue that the PN should not emulate Labour in having a strongman as a leader as this model may well not fit with the kind of leadership expected from a party which depends on the support of educated MOR voters who may shun authoritarian leaders. For Busuttil the challenge is to be perceived as an authoritive rather than authoritarian leader. But this depends on other factors including the quality and credibility of his front bench, which he mostly inherits from the previous administration. 

Still I have to say that Busuttil is still perceived as a weak leader, a sort of latter-day Sisyphus whose burden is too heavy for him to bring to the top of the mountain. 

Busuttil’s sense of discomfort while addressing the masses may be at the roots of this perception but that did not prevent Sant from being elected in 1996. His short stint as Gonzi’s deputy leader is another factor in eroding his trust rating among switchers. But Busuttil's major weakness could be his dismissive approach towards those who disagree with him. Just as sobriety and his gentle disposition may be his best character traits, a sense of self-righteousness (often perceived as a sense of superiority that is misplaced sense in view of his party’s past baggage) is definitely his worse trait.

Busuttil’s problem mostly stems from his inability to deal with the two major problems confronting the PN: Muscat’s repositioning of his party as a liberal albeit more cronyist version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party, and the sheer fact that electoral cycles in Malta tend to condemn losing parties to 10 years in opposition. All this goes beyond Busuttil’s personal charisma.

Muscat has clearly occupied the same ideological space associated with past PN governments. When it comes to development policies and privatisation, Muscat is more like a Nationalist on steroids than a socialist. Even in education, by proposing homeschooling the Labour government seems to be pandering to a lobby which puts parental choice before inclusion and social justice. Such policies have alienated some switchers and a section of Labour voters but may well appeal to those elites which once saw the PN as their best insurance policy in government. Since the PN in essence remains a party of the centre right (alligned to the European People's Party) there is a limit to how far it can posture itself as centre-left without losing its own authenticity.

Moreover because of its track record in office, on issues like the environment the PN is not benefitting from rebellion against Labour’s shift to the right.

Yet Muscat also shares Fenech Adami’s populist bent in reconciling the free market with a social agenda. Just as Fenech Adami opened the gates of the university for all (stipend included), Muscat has introduced free childcare for all, a reform which may well stand as this administration most lasting legacy. 

Muscat has also exploited the divide between social liberals and moral conservatives within the Nationalist camp. For it is clear that whenever PN exponents speak in favour of censorship or against the morning-after pill, they are probably expressing the views of the vast majority of their voters but they are also alienating a category of strategic voters and dampening their image among young educated voters. 

For the PN it is not easy to resolve these contradictions irrespective of who leads the party. It also raises the question on whether the PN is a victim of an electoral system, which results in ‘big tent’ parties where disparate elements are forced to cohabit. Keeping these elements united may be easier for a party in government which can dispense patronage to keep its cheer leaders happy, but it is increasingly difficult for a party in opposition with  a slim chance of winning the next election to do likewise.

When it comes to development policies and privatisation, Muscat is more like a Nationalist on steroids than a socialist

The second problem for Busuttil and the PN is that related to electoral cycles. The PN comes from 25 years of office, which inevitably come with a baggage, which weighs heavily on Busuttil. In Malta people are used to 10-year cycles (Fenech Adami was defeated in 1996 and only returned to power after Mintoff brought down the Sant-led government), during which the Opposition prepares itself for government after ten years in Opposition.  One should remember that after 1987, Labour only managed to become electable in 1996 after voters voted in a new generation of MPs  in the 1992 general election.  The PN desperately needs a generational change and that can only happen after the next election.

Surely Muscat’s reaction to Panamagate and his track record on good governance after just three years in office raise gargantuan questions on the desirability of a second term in office for Muscat.  In fact it is Muscat's reaction to Panamagate which raises the question of whether the country needs a change in government. Voters may well think that the PN needs a whole decade in opposition before being ready for office but are increasingly feeling that another five years of Muscat are too much to bear. The only way the PN can address this feeling is by projecting itself as a reform movement with a clear agenda of constitutional and administrative changes meant at curtailing the powers of governments and bring greater pluralism. Still such a message would not go down well with tribalists in his party who might well be investing their future in a re-edition of a pre 2013 PN kind of government.

But the worst thing for the PN to do is to appeal to diehards through antics reminiscent of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s old Labour. Affirming tribal loyalty may galvanise the shrinking core vote but would simply alienate those who want change in government but not a restoration of the pre 2013 status quo. The reality is that the PN has a smaller core vote than the PL. Busuttil seems to realise this and has come up with some sensible policies on good governance.  But he has also been too busy running with the hares while hunting with the hounds to convey a clear, unambiguous message of change. 

On some issues he goes midway. Unlike Muscat who gave gay rights activists a blank cheque on civil liberties, Busuttil is unable to do the same with environmentalists. On ODZ projects he speaks of the need for a  two-thirds majority requirement in parliament which may be a good idea if this is implemented as an additional safeguard. But the devil in the detail suggests otherwise:  for as the proposal stands today there is no need of prior approval  by the Planning Authority and the government will have the final say with a  simple majority in the third reading. The party seems hesitant to oppose high rise towers failing to realise that for the public these represent the oligarchy's signature on the Maltese landscape. On electoral reform-an issue which can reaffirm the party's role in democratising Maltese society- his party is either silent or hostile.

In the end the PN is not inspiring voters. Blaming this on the leader is simplistic and there may be no definitive solutions to most of the problems mentioned above. But this summer may be the last chance for the party to go back to the drawing room to consider these existential issues.

For after that, the party has to be ready for a long and bitter electoral campaign where Muscat will benefit from the power of incumbency.

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