‘Reconciliation’, they said. ‘It’s easy’, they said...

Once described as a 'land of attitudes and platitudes', Malta is a place where strong opinions are held, both in and outside the political sphere

A very wise man (easily the wisest I have ever met) once described Malta as a ‘land of attitudes and platitudes’. It is a place where everyone holds down strong opinions... but hardly anyone seems capable of expressing them in anything but empty, facile and obviously memorised sound-bites and catch-phrases.

One of the more typical political platitudes has been doing the rounds a lot lately. I have seen it repeated by various people these past two weeks: both in and outside the political sphere. It goes something like: “Oh, and don’t forget that the Nationalist Party has always emerged stronger and more united after the toughest of times...!”  

As a rule, platitudes don’t get much more trite and unhelpful than that. In fact, this one comes perilously close to defining the true essence of the word ‘meaninglessness’. 

The first (and most bleedingly obvious) reason is that... allow me to take a deep breath... IT’S NOT TRUE! And we can all confirm that through even a cursory glance at the events of the last few months alone.

In March 2013, the PN received a humiliating drubbing at the polls since its inception around 1875. It lost an election by (what was then) an almost unimaginable 36,000 vote-margin. So... did the party bounce back and emerge ‘stronger and more united’ than ever?

Did it, my eye. If that were the case, we wouldn’t exactly be witnessing such a fundamental crisis today, almost five years after that election result. The PN would not be faced with a decision so excruciating that it might easily split that party in two. No: very clearly, the Nationalist Party has steadily grown weaker and more divided since its so-called ‘toughest times’ in 2013. Even the simple fact that times have got considerably tougher since then is proof enough.

But that is only part of the attitude problem that has manifestly engulfed that party over the past decade or so. For even if it were true that the PN had always grown stronger in adversity... as indeed it would be true, if we were talking only about the PN of the 1980s... well, so what? There’s a first time for everything in life. As those old stock market investment ads used to go: ‘past performance is no guarantee of future success’. Just because the PN successfully overcame hurdles and obstacles in the past – i.e., when it was led by capable leaders endowed with this thing called ‘foresight’ – it by no means follows that it will continue to do so today, when... well... you can work the rest out for yourselves.

This brings us to a third problem: one which, by now, should be so self-evident that I really shouldn’t have to even spell it out. Political parties don’t ‘grow stronger and more united’ on their own. To achieve that sort of result, you have to work at it. You have to roll up your sleeves, wade into the quagmire, and start clawing your way – painfully, inch by inch – in a direction that actually does lead to unity and strength.

Is that what’s happening right now? Erm... not as far as I can see. Quite the contrary: the Nationalist Party is patiently and meticulously ensuring that no reconciliation can ever take place at all. 

That is why foresight is such a crucial faculty for the (actual or would-be) political leader.  In two weeks’ time, either Chris Said or Adrian Delia will emerge as leader of the Nationalist Party. There is, admittedly, a small chance that neither of them will... i.e., if one pulls out, and the other fails to get 66% of the vote... but if that does happen, I seriously doubt there will even be anything left of the PN at all, after the ensuing fracas. It will simply obliterate itself in one giant cataclysm...

So the great likelihood is that one of those two will be elected leader on September 16. And what will happen then?

The first priority of any newly-elected party leader – under normal circumstances – would be to reach out across the internal divide, and try and heal the party’s self-inflicted wounds. We saw this with Eddie Fenech Adami appointing Guido de Marco deputy PN leader in 1977; and more recently, when Gonzi made John Dalli a Cabinet Minister, then later nominated him for European Commissioner. The losing faction must somehow be incorporated into the new party structures... or at minimum, appeased. 

But the circumstances are now far from ordinary. I can’t see any outcome in which appeasement (still less incorporation) is even possible. If Delia wins, any Nationalist MP or official – even any old supporter – who accepts an olive-branch from the newly crowned leader would automatically be walking directly into the line of fire. We’re already seeing this today: MPs Kristy and Jean-Pierre Debono – and now even the party whip, David Agius – have been pre-emptively ‘outed’ just for supporting Delia. Again, a warning shot has been fired across the bows. What will happen to any other PN official who dares openly voice his or her own preference in this election? 

The result of this tactic is already visible: according to a MaltaToday report, ‘only a handful’ of MPs have publicly taken sides in this election: “Both Claudette Buttigieg and Ryan Callus said that ‘given the circumstances’ they would refrain from making their preference public,” the article ran.

“Given the circumstances”, huh? Now, what ‘circumstances’ could they possibly have in mind...?

There is, of course, a delicious irony in all this. The same people who now fear reprisals for simply stating an opinion, had previously applauded when Labour officials (and, again, mere supporters) were routinely singled out for exactly the same treatment. Somehow, it’s not quite so enjoyable a spectacle, is it, when the victim being dismembered for the gratification of a bloodthirsty public is... yourself. 

But that, too, explains why reconciliation between the PN factions is now impossible. If Chris Said wins, he will encounter exactly the same problem when (or if) trying to reach out to disappointed Delia supporters. Then again, however, why should he even try? The substance of his entire argument is that Adrian Delia is unfit to lead the PN on account of his shady business dealings. By that reasoning, Delia – and his entire support-base, who had no problem with that issue at all – should have no place within Said’s PN at all. 

Indeed, if Said does try to bridge that divide after winning this contest... any criticism levelled at him would be perfectly legitimate. He would be undermining the foundations of his own political platform, and exposing himself to charges of hypocrisy.

This also means that Delia’s enthusiastic following... which was enough to sway a majority of PN councillors in the first round... will almost certainly be lost to the PN forever after round two. And if, on the other hand, Delia wins and Said loses... well, the same thing will happen, only in reverse.

Do you see any way the Nationalist Party can emerge ‘stronger and more united’ from all this? Anyone out there? You, perhaps... who repeated the above cliché a dozen times this week on Facebook... do you see any way to ‘strengthen’ and ‘unify’ a political party, other than by endlessly repeating mindless nonsense?

Well, for what it’s worth... I do. It will take time – at least one more term in Opposition, by my count – but it is by no means impossible. And it’s a simple method, too... so simple, that even microscopic organisms living two billion years ago somehow managed to do it all on their own.

It’s called ‘evolving a backbone’... which is in turn the first step towards that exercise I mentioned earlier: ‘rolling up your sleeves, wading into that quagmire, clawing your way out’, etc. 

THAT is the only way political parties strengthen and grow more united. Through guts and determination, not through empty slogans and catchphrases. So off you all go then... and don’t come back until your party is ‘strengthened’ and ‘more united’, like you promised.

But whatever you do... don’t you DARE complain about the stench of the mire you will now be wading into. And I really mean that: don’t you DARE...

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