How to scuttle your own party

As has happened on so many other occasions, it is the allegation that makes the story...with the ‘non-existence’ of proof dismissed as an irrelevance

Adrian Delia, Alex Perici Calascione and Chris Said happened to meet in Qrendi as it celebrated the feast of the Assumption
Adrian Delia, Alex Perici Calascione and Chris Said happened to meet in Qrendi as it celebrated the feast of the Assumption

If the PN were an individual human being instead of a political party, there would be grounds to put it on ‘suicide watch’ right now. All this infighting, public squabbling, this naked drive for factional supremacy at all costs... no good can possibly come of it, you know. You cannot fight wars with both yourself and your political adversaries, and expect to one day emerge victorious. In fact, under those circumstances you cannot realistically expect to win even one of those two wars... let alone both.

Yet this has somehow become the only discernible ‘strategy’ at work in the corridors of the Stamperija these days. Ever since those four candidates stepped forward to vie for the party leadership, the ‘war on Labour’ seems to have been forgotten altogether. It’s now a ‘war on Frank Portelli and Adrian Delia’... waged mostly by Daphne Caruana Galizia, with the vociferous backing of thousands of her (Nationalist) followers. 

In other words, it’s an open war waged by Nationalists against Nationalists... a no-holds-barred confrontation where no prisoners will be taken, no quarter will be shown, and – most likely – no survivors will even be left standing after next September. So in case you were wondering why the Labour Party’s gone so quiet all of a sudden... why it hasn’t even bothered dishing out any dirt on any of those four candidates... well, the answer should be perfectly obvious by now.

What’s the point? Why get your own hands dirty through political warfare... when you just sit back, crack open a beer, and enjoy the gory spectacle of the PN literally ripping itself to pieces, limb by bloody limb? No, indeed. People like Glenn Bedingfield may as well close shop for what’s left of the August holidays. His blog is no longer necessary... the PN is doing a good enough job of eviscerating itself without any outside help whatsoever. 

OK, time to look at a few of the skirmishes in this ongoing war. Let’s start with Frank Portelli... the 73-year-old former Nationalist MP who is now the target of so much online vilification. 

So far, he has been called out over a) his age; b) his debts; c) his ‘homophobic, racist’ views, and; c) his personal family life... including the circumstances under which he married his second wife, and (more recently) allegations that he somehow ‘mentally abused’ his 17-year-old son.

Regarding the first objection, Simon Mercieca – a (Nationalist) columnist with the Independent – has already said it better than I ever could. Simon Busuttil was no old fogey when he became leader in 2013... and just look how severely the party has suffered under his leadership since then. ’Nuff said.

As for the second concern... well, that’s an entirely acceptable line of criticism in itself. Portelli has been ordered by the law courts to pay back a 12 millon euro bank loan. He is not exactly very well-positioned to take over a political party, with that sort of thing dangling over his head.

This was, however, also known to one and all from long before Portelli threw his hat into the ring. I’ll come back to this hugely significant detail after dealing with the other objections.

His beliefs and ideas, for instance. This is where things start to get a little cock-eyed. On paper, Portelli favours large-scale deportation of migrants, and using detention as a deterrent. These are indeed problematic positions, which are distasteful to a lot of people. BUT... the sort of person who would object to that, would also have had deep concerns about the Nationalist Party pursuing those very same policies all the time it was in power. Malta’s detention regime was in fact set up by the Nationalist government; to date, it was a Nationalist government that was responsible for the largest mass-deportation of migrants this country has ever witnessed. 

In fact, I see no difference whatsoever between Portelli’s views, and the policies enacted by Tonio Borg when he was minister of home affairs. It is a case of condemning Portelli for merely saying what the PN had actually been doing for years.

Much the same could be said for his views on gay rights. We all seem to have forgotten that it was the PN which initially opposed same sex marriage... and that view is still very current within the party, as recently evidenced by Edwin Vassallo’s protest vote in Parliament. Again, these are issues that would keep some people from supporting the PN. But only the sort of person who would never vote PN anyway. My gut feeling tells me that Portelli is more in sync with the PN grassroots than his detractors. So to ‘call him out’ for his homophobia and racism, is also to indirectly strengthen his hand.

But to put all this into its proper perspective, we have to return to the debt issue. As I said earlier, Portelli’s financial position has been in the public domain for years now. It is partly for this reason that – let’s face it – he never stood the ghost of a chance in this race to begin with. I’d say his chances of winning the PN leadership are perfectly analogous to his chances of winning a seat in the European Parliament in 2009. He received 2,450 first-count votes in that election. Simon Busuttil got close to 70,000.

Considering that Portelli was never really in the running anyway: what sense did it make to bring out such heavy artillery? Why delve into aspects of his troubled private life, when these issues were never going to make any difference to his non-existent chances from the outset?

Leaving aside the possibility that he may even win a few sympathy votes on the strength of those ‘attacks’... anyone with any political nous at all will immediately recognise that strategy as counter-productive. The latest development is that Portelli now ‘regrets’ his decision to contest... which some interpret as a signal he may withdraw from the race altogether. If not, he is (and always was) likely to be utterly annihilated at the first vote. 

Either outcome – withdrawal, or humiliating defeat – can now only constitute an unforced error on the part of the PN. Portelli has supporters... nowhere near enough to get him elected PN leader, granted; but supporters all the same. If they interpret their candidate’s undignified demise in this election as the result of an internal strategy to destroy him – which they now will, whatever happens – those votes will be lost to the Nationalist Party FOREVER.

Now consider the alternative... which I would certainly have advised, were it my job to counsel the PN on strategy. Ignore him. Let Frank Portelli’s campaign sink on its own. This way, the result would be exactly the same: with one crucial difference. Those PN voters would not blame the humiliation of their preferred candidate on the PN. They would be disappointed... but they would not feel angry, resentful and mistrustful towards their own party.

Over to Delia now, and here the immediate circumstances are somewhat different. Unlike Portelli, Delia is regarded as a wild-card outsider who may actually stand a chance. The criticism, too, is of a slightly different order. We have heard perfectly legitimate questions asked about his interests and liabilities... but as usual, ‘legitimate criticism’ has been allowed to stray beyond the confines of legitimacy. 

Now, we are confronted with yet another unsubstantiated allegation to add to all the others. It turns out that Delia was the subject of an anonymous police report last year, alleging that ‘a male person’ was ‘selling drugs out of a grey Mercedes car, registration number DEL320, parked in Horses Lane in the limits of Tal-Handaq’. Sure enough, it was Adrian Delia’s car.

 Of course, it is entirely irrelevant that the police also questioned Delia at the time – i.e., shortly after the report was made, when his car was still there – searched both him and the vehicle, and found no evidence of any drugs whatsoever. (In fact, they dropped the case right there and then. It’s all in the report.)

But just look how the public discussion is now developing. As has happened on so many other occasions, it is the allegation that makes the story... with the non-existence of ‘proof’ dismissed as an irrelevance.  Even if no drugs were found, Adrian Delia has to somehow ‘give an account of himself’. There is an ongoing attempt to somehow exploit any suspicions that may be aroused... to the extent of rifling through his wife’s Facebook profile in search of ‘incriminating photos’ (or at least, photos that would be incriminating... if ‘having a good time’ were somehow against the law).

His wife Nickie (who happens to be an old school friend of mine) closed down her Facebook account as a result. Incredibly, even this has been added to the ‘web of intrigue’ aimed at discrediting her husband. Instead of being alarmed at how bystanders are trampled upon in the course of political warfare – civil war, in this case – people are cynically assuming that Delia’s wife must have had something to hide.

It would almost be comical if it weren’t so repulsive. It seems we really are all only too happy to dispense with a couple of thousand years’ worth of European jurisprudence, and throw the maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ headlong out of the window. So long as an unproven allegation can be used to destroy a political adversary... you can rest assured it will, and to hell with the consequences. 

Well, that illustrates precisely why this strategy is so utterly suicidal. Those consequences could be severe.  If Frank Portelli has supporters, Adrian Delia – for reasons I’ll admit I find hard to understand – seems to have many, many more. There are even people out there who identify in him someone who can actually lift the PN out of the quagmire in which it is currently sinking. I have my own doubts about that... but even I can recognise that as an expression of ‘hope’, among the grassroots of a party which hasn’t actually given them anything to be ‘hopeful’ about in a long time.

So what better way to respond to an upcoming generation of optimistic, forward-looking Nationalist voters... then by shitting all over the object of their hope? Especially when the only realistic alternative is someone who we can all see being hand-picked for them... by the very people who were directly responsible for the PN’s plight today?

However this pans out in the end, it can only leave a trail of angry, bitter disillusioned former Nationalists in its wake. After that, all that remains for that party is to slowly bleed to death.