If Grech stays, his reforms must be far-reaching

Only a leader with a clear vision for this party, with the stamina to coax it gently towards the road they want to take it, and some ruthless decision-making, can address the toxic brand the PN seems to represent today

By staying on as leader, Bernard Grech ultimately stymies any sort of credible leadership challenge from aspirants who would advance a radically different vision for the Nationalist Party. To participate in a leadership election that upsets the establishment that initially forced Adrian Delia out and introduced Grech to the leadership, would stoke yet more division in the party, to go by past experience. 

Grech’s failure at the polls is not his own entirely. Much inside the PN structures and the lasting legacy of its established MPs prevents a leader from effecting the party’s much needed changes. 

Grech’s shortcomings are certainly evident: the election betrayed his inability to manage his party’s internal divisions, with unhappy candidates (also one-time Delia allies) making surprise announcements on day one of the campaign that they would not contest; the PN manifesto proffered a complex, management handbook for tax credits enabled by undefined environmental, social and governance criteria; and Grech was hampered by the PN’s cantankerous voice vying for influence in the party – with conservatives and liberals trying hard to get on in this broad church. 

Only a leader with a clear vision for this party, with the stamina to coax it gently towards the road they want to take it, and some ruthless decision-making, can address the toxic brand the PN seems to represent today. Grech was unable to do this, whether by dint of the internal obstacles he faces, or because he fails to identify the ingredients of what a modern European, centrist party like the PN’s own counterparts in the continent, requires. The result is a PN with just over 123,000 people supporting it. Its only consolation is that Labour’s overall support is today smaller than 2013’s resounding victory. 

In 2003, Labour leader Alfred Sant faced an internal challenge from the likes of Anġlu Farrugia and John Attard Montalto. Notwithstanding their ambitions to make Labour more electable after the party’s failed campaign against EU membership, Sant’s tenacious hold kept away two pretenders whose prospects of success were nowhere as close to Sant’s. After 2008’s near-miss, Sant made way for a leadership election of historical significance: Joseph Muscat was elected leader, overcoming George Abela’s challenge, whose son is today prime minister. 

Grech has also been unlucky in having stepped up to accept an onerous challenge mid-way through a legislature in which the divided PN saw a backbench rebellion brutalising Adrian Delia. Grech was only glad to serve. But Delia was also bound to lose and was taking the PN into dead-end political alleys. Grech, or any other aspirant, could have provided a fresh start today in 2022.But Grech’s promoters had shown themselves increasingly callous about the popular election in which their paid-up members had chosen Delia. The party’s establishment and its vocal supporters carried the day, forgetting how many had been scarred by their whims. The effects of their intransigence are evident today. 

Labour in the meantime was delivering what it promised, generating upward mobility for working-class and middle-class families, and pushing more infrastructural investment especially in the south. Abela’s election and his ability to revamp his parliamentary group away from the Muscat legacy, was fortuitous for Labour despite its problems with governance. 

The PN has much work to do on what has hampered this party’s inability to modernize itself ever since it carried the nation into the European Union. But its refusal to attune itself to the changed expectations and aspirations of a liberal democracy, its political disconnection from the southern constituencies, and its cultish subservience to its own exceptionalism and self-serving conformism, has punished it. 

One can hardly speak for the 60,000 voters who stayed away from the polls – these are hardly a homogeneous bloc, and many of them could be enticed to return to their party homes under different conditions. Indeed, much of what Abela’s second administration does in these next two years, could again recalibrate the electoral map – if participation at the European elections shows itself to be healthy, it would signify a clean bill of health for Maltese politics. 

But the PN must change. It must not ditch the fight against corruption – but it cannot turn it into a moral crusade for ‘anti-Labour’ sentiment. And its MPs cannot berate voters’ democratic choices as simply the malady of the ‘amoral familism’, or appear inured to the vilification of anyone remotely connected to Labour. 

If Grech is going to be the caretaker leader of a diminished PN, he must start by recognising the party’s shortcomings and prepare it for a courageous evolution. The reforms he ushers in for his party, must be far-reaching.