Regenerating old parties

Ultimately both parties led by two leaders who replaced their predecessor in the middle of the legislature are at the crossroads and now need a team of loyalists, which can back them

Next Saturday’s election is not just about choosing which party will govern the country in the next five years, which standing by the latest polls appears to be a foregone conclusion, but also about choosing the best crop of MPs from those fielded by both parties.

Generational renewal is naturally a priority for the PN, which wants to start a new page and project a fresher image, which is untainted by association with past PN governments. Moreover the party desperately needs a front bench from which Grech or any leader, who may replace him, can choose a shadow cabinet, which gives Labour a run for its money. But much depends on the quality of the people who will replace the veterans. 

Moreover despite clearly pushing for new blood, the party remains lacking in a number of key areas like finances and the economy where the party faces a formidable adversary in Clyde Caruana, who himself represents the renewal carried out in Labour by Robert Abela.  For while the party has sidelined its main spokesperson for finances (Mario De Marco), candidates fielded by the party on this topic have not impressed in terms of depth. Moreover while Claudio Grech has led by example and will not be contesting after spearheading the party’s manifesto, his absence on the front bench will also be felt.  The push for younger candidates was also bound to irk party stalwarts who felt sidelined, particularly those MPs who had supported Adrian Delia.

The announcement made by three of these candidates on the first day of the campaign that they would not be contesting had sent shockwaves in the party. Despite these shortcomings, the party’s list of candidates includes a number of younger faces with a more inclusive approach, which can be crucial in reconnecting with voters who are allergic to the PN of old.  But it remains to be seen whether these candidates will serve as new bottles for old wine, or really bring new ideas on themes like social justice, environmental protection and civil liberties.  

Another problem facing the PN are lingering factional divides with the contest between Beppe Fenech Adami and former leader Adrian Delia on the eight district widely seen as a reckoning between two factions.  So is the performance of Jason Azzopardi, the firebrand MP whose scrutiny of Labour was relentless but whose antics tend to rub off the labour leaning segment of the population, on the third district.  To his credit during the campaign Grech has shown that he is his own man, leading a largely positive campaign and steering away from overtly partisan warmongering. Moreover candidates pushed by the party seem to be reading from the same inclusive playbook.

Robert Abela has also used his time in office to push a new generation, which is less tainted by association with his disgraced predecessor.  It is clear that Abela wants to choose his cabinet from a renewed parliamentary group and a wider pool of talent. Over the past three years Abela struggled to build his own team. He even had to resort to the cooption mechanism to inject new dynamism in his cabinet by including competent ministers Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana and a number of new personalities on the parliamentary backbench including former KNDP chairman Oliver Scicluna whose frank critique of clientelism also shared by Clyde Caruana were a breath of fresh air.  But despite these welcome changes observers will be closely watching the fate of politicians like Rosianne Cutajar, Owen Bonnici, Edward Zammit Lewis and Glenn Bedingfield who are still associated with the Muscat era. 

Moreover in the case of Cutajar her affirmation at the polls will fly in the face of a damning report by the standards commissioner on her role in a property deal involving murder suspect and 17 Black owner Jorgen Fenech. The disgraced but still popular Labour leader has also sabotaged Abela’s attempt to distance himself from his toxic legacy, by endorsing candidates like Rosianne Cutajar, Deo Debattista, Glen Bedingfield and Keith Tanti.  It remains to be seen whether if elected these candidates will be more loyal towards Abela or Muscat.

Ultimately both parties led by two leaders who replaced their predecessor in the middle of the legislature are at the crossroads and now need a team of loyalists, which can back them. What they risk overlooking is the need for principled and outspoken backbenchers who can call a spade a spade and thus keep them on the throes. This will help the respective parties in keeping in line with public expectations.  

The obsession with unity also militates against a productive battle of ideas within big tent parties, which naturally include people with different sensitivities on contentious social issues like abortion.  Equally important is for parties to find a role for their own grandees, people who have the experience to guide and advice leaders and who have the moral authority to rebuke them when red lines are crossed.  The absence of both categories was one of the reasons why so few people in Labour stood up to be counted on panamagate and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.