Careful what you wish for, Adrian…

If you close an eye at the high probability that the decision has already been taken anyway, and pretend that there is still a chance that Joseph Muscat might surprise us all by appointing someone other than George Vella…

As some of you may have already sensed, it is soon going to be time to choose Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s successor as President of the Republic. And already there are indications that the decision itself – which, given the largely ceremonial nature of the position, should really be a simple formality – will form yet another backdrop for Malta’s endless (and spectacularly pointless) version of ‘Game of Thrones’.

As I write this, Adrian Delia has just ‘challenged’ Joseph Muscat to appoint a ‘Nationalist President’… at a time when everyone else seems to have already tacitly accepted that: a) the choice will almost certainly be veteran Labour MP George Vella, and; b) even if it isn’t Vella, it will almost certainly be someone else from the Labour fold. (Note: according to the most recent indications, the decision has already been taken, and George Vella’s appointment appears to be awaiting only an official announcement. But Delia couldn’t have known that at the time he issued his challenge).

Either way, however: the problem, as I see it, is that whatever happens from now on, the choice will automatically be polemicised along the usual partisan lines. If Muscat sticks to the script, and appoints Vella tomorrow – or any other Labour President – he will open himself to accusations of having ‘deepened the political divide’. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that he does defy prognostications by appointing someone from the Opposition benches… it will be an interpreted as a ‘capitulation’ to demands by the Opposition; and in political terms, that signifies a ‘defeat’.

Viewed only as a political strategy, there is undeniably a certain logic to all that. Delia’s ‘challenge’ does, on paper, make life slightly more difficult for the Prime Minister, and possibly increase Delia’s own chances of actually coming out on top in at least one little political issue (something that, to be honest, hasn’t happened to the PN in quite a while now).

But that is a perspective that only makes sense if you happen to be embroiled in the political divide yourself. For the rest of us out here – i.e., those who are fed up to the back teeth of the endless pattern whereby everything in this country gets politicised sooner or later – it also has to be seen for what it ultimately is: i.e., an insidious strategy, aimed at undermining the Presidency itself as one of Malta’s last remaining ‘politics-free zones’.

And in any case… it really has become a bit of a bore, you know. Let me start with this annoying business of politicians forever ‘challenging’ each other to do stuff. In this case, it’s ‘to appoint a Nationalist President’; in another case, it might be to publish an unredacted State contract, or to deny a certain allegation, or to introduce a certain measure in the next Budget, etc.

Erm… excuse me for asking, but why do any of those requests have to take the form of a ‘challenge’, anyway?   

This may come as a surprise to Maltese politicians… but this isn’t a game of ‘spin the bottle’, or ‘truth or dare’ (which is probably just as well, as no Maltese politician would ever ‘dare’ to tell the ‘truth’ anyway). So, unless your ‘challenge’ is to do something seriously ‘challenging’ – like face an opponent in a duel at dawn, for instance – it tends to come across as a little… how can I put it? … melodramatic.  

So while you probably think you all look very ‘manly’ – in a macho, vaguely Sicilian kind of way – when you stand on a podium, and throw down the gauntlet like that… in actual fact, you look (and sound) much more like a spoilt little child, throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t instantly get what he wants.

Besides: why does it always have to be so confrontational? Why not just a simple ‘suggestion’, or even a ‘polite request’? For instance: “Hey, Mr Prime Minister: I think it would be a good idea to appoint a Nationalist Prime Minister this time round.

For one thing, it would make a much-needed statement about national unity, and maybe even go some distance towards lessening political tensions in the country. And it would make you look good, too: heck, you might even go down in history as the ‘guy who healed the political divide.’…”

There. Not only is that approach a good deal more conducive to anything resembling ‘reasonable discussion’… but at a stretch, it could conceivably work, too. Certainly, its chances of success are much higher than a partisan strategy that is clearly designed only to force the Prime Minister’s hand… and thereby keep us all as entrenched as possible in our current state of hostilities.

Ah, but that’s the whole point of Delia’s ‘challenge’, isn’t it? It’s not because Delia actually wants the next President to be Nationalist (note: actually, he has every reason not to… given that around half that party happens to hate him far more than they hate Joseph Muscat). Quite the other way round; it’s because Delia wants to ensure that Muscat does indeed appoint a Labour President… thereby giving the Opposition a little more ammunition to use against him in future.

Right: at this juncture I feel compelled to point out that (in case I’m giving a different impression) I don’t really begrudge Adrian Delia the use of this little tactic.

He is, after all, a late-comer to Malta’s political game; which also means he had very little say in the establishments of its rules of engagement. In reality, all past Opposition leaders have always approached the issue the same way… sometimes with much greater belligerence than Adrian Delia. (As I recall, the Labour Party had once – early 1990s-ish – even boycotted former President Vincent Tabone, on much the same grounds. Interestingly enough, Evarist Bartolo had spearheaded that boycott at the time… and he is now named as a potential future President himself.)

Besides: on a separate level entirely, it is somewhat difficult to begrudge Adrian Delia almost anything at all, really… seeing how little things are going his way right now. Let’s face it: it can’t be easy leading the Opposition at the best of times… let alone when your own party is working much harder to destroy you, than the one you’re actually supposed to be ‘opposing’.

So fair enough, I say. If the PN can’t find anything else to pick a fight about at the moment… by all means, pick a fight about the next President of the Republic. But then, don’t go around complaining about a ‘political divide’ that you yourself have so shamelessly exploited for your own political purposes; and don’t come crying to the rest of us, either, when the Presidency eventually loses its ceremonial ‘unifying’ function, and becomes just another cog in Malta’s eternal political war-machine.

But above all, don’t go blaming anyone else if your strategy boomerangs on you in some rather predictable ways. For when you stop to think about it… Adrian Delia didn’t quite specify what sort of ‘Nationalist’ he had in mind when he issuing his challenge. And last I looked, the PN was not exactly what you would call ‘united’ behind his leadership.

So, if you close an eye at the high probability that the decision has already been taken anyway, and pretend that there is still a chance that Joseph Muscat might surprise us all by appointing someone other than George Vella… I have no idea how Muscat would respond to Delia’s challenge, but I certainly know what I would do if I were in his place.

So you want ‘a Nationalist President’, do you, Dr Delia? Fine, I’m only too happy to grant your wish.

Meet your new President, Dr Simon Busuttil…  remember? The one you unsuccessfully tried to oust from the Nationalist Party last year, but who instead spearheaded a backbencher revolt against your leadership, and remains your biggest spoke in the wheels by far?

Well, he’s my choice. And you can hardly complain about it, now can you? It is, after all, what you yourself ‘challenged’ me to do in the first place…

Naturally, that strategy depends entirely on Busuttil accepting the position when it is offered… something I concede does not look very likely at the precise moment. But it doesn’t have to be Busuttil himself, does it?

The Nationalist Party is chock-full of other (equally anti-Delia) Presidential candidates to choose from… half the PN’s parliamentary group, in fact… and all of them fit the only ‘credential’ Delia himself has named in his terms.

They are all ‘Nationalists’… even if they are all viscerally opposed to Adrian Delia as Nationalist Party leader. But then again; that’s precisely what Delia wants, and what he has ‘challenged’ government to do… without, it seems, even pausing to consider how an astute political adversary might capitalise on the request.

Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but if I were in Adrian Delia’s shoes right now, I’d be just a teenie-weenie bit more careful what I wished for…

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