Hardened hearts inside the PN

The tribulations inside the Nationalist Party are hardly just part of a skirmish between  

personalities inside the PN or their loyal followers. The war inside the PN is a culmination of political manoeuvres, ideological digressions and political reconsolidations on a party that has struggled with the pressure of Maltese political history’s tectonic movements. 

It is 12 years since the financial crisis that changed Europe, when austerity politics waged war on the poorest in the EU, bolstered nationalistic movements, and weakened European solidarity. Little seems to have changed since then in the EU of 2020 as it faces down the pandemic. The Nationalist government in 2008 had won its last election by just 1,500 votes. In the next election, over 37,000 would shift allegiance to Labour, consolidating once again in 2017 in the face of serious allegations of corruption at the heart of Joseph Muscat’s leadership, the breakneck speed of economic growth, and a progressive agenda of civil liberties. 

For the PN, little seems to have changed too. Labour’s repositioning into centrist, third-way, ‘natural party of government’ politics outflanked the Nationalists on the right. Yet few people inside the opposition today can speak a language of modern, visionary and ambitious politics. Neither Delia loyalists, nor ‘first class’ rebels, have managed to go beyond the obligatory virtuosity of calling out the sins of the Panama gang (or of each other opposition PN faction), or Labour’s cosiness with the business class. And at a time when Labour should be soul-searching on the very dark legacy of the Muscat administration beyond its material achievements, a sideshow of power politics keeps everyone absorbed, away from the corruption and state capture of the institutions. 

Critically, the PN’s chief problem has never been just the person who leads the party (although Malta’s presidential drift and the allure of strongmen remains an overarching factor in the two-party dominance). The party has failed to connect – politically and regionally – with a working-class electorate whose lives have been unquestionably improved by the Labour economic programme; instead, under Delia the PN resorted to lazy nationalistic tropes on immigration and security. On the environment, Delia’s occasional bluster on climate change is unconvincing – few people inside the PN seem to be equally preoccupied with Malta’s umbilical dependence on construction and the ravages of our planning regime to propose a radical departure from our business-as-usual model. 

In many political issues and on bread-and-butter realities, the PN has failed to articulate coherent and ideologically sound ideas that offer a solution to people’s problems. It is useless to complain that Labour might have discarded its socialist credentials, if the alternative to that is nothing, or indeed ‘less socialist’ anyway. And to go by some of its MPs and their outdated view of society and change, the PN’s crystallisation into a modern, European party of liberal democracy has yet to become reality.  

With that comes the person who leads and indeed articulates this vision. Already the party struggles under the factionalised split between its dynastic ‘elites’, and a more tribalistic section of members alienated by those who dislike Delia. It will be no mean feat to bring both sides back together after a war of attrition and spite, under the serene leadership of someone who can take the PN into a new political sphere of action – propositional, aspirational, at ease with its own European calling and ready to disrobe itself of the hang-ups of its provincial conservatism. 

There will be one further obstacle, currently characterised yet again by the battle between the two factions – a softening of hardened hearts whose disappointment at this internecine war will be felt for years to come. People like Franco Debono, the former MP, understand clearly how when in government, the PN employed unofficial mouthpieces to hit out at internal critics like him, beat them into submission through the power of gossip and shame. That old dynamic of honour and shame lives on in the social media sphere that has attempted to decimate the ineffective Delia by publicising insalubrious details of his marital breakdown. Such tactics will have their toll on the PN, reminding the wider audience of the way politics is done inside the Stamperija, where the voice of an entitled class of politician carry more weight than others. 

That should not give Labour voters any serenity. The government is itself enjoy the PN sideshow with little regard for its own troubles since the departure of Muscat and Keith Schembri. Those who avoid seeking redemption for the sins of the administration do so at their own risk. Too many criminal investigations, national audits, and magisterial inquiries are going on not to uncover the nefarious workings of the Labour government’s inner circle.