PN protest: a reminder that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’  

In this sense, the party needs to go into listening mode, and fashion its message in a way which reconciles its ‘party principles’ (whatever these are) with popular aspirations

It is often said that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’; and that any vacant niche, in any given ecosystem, will invariably be filled sooner or later.

This is, of course, just as true about ‘political ecosystems’ as natural ones. And the turnout for the Nationalist Party protest last Sunday, against “the government’s theft of our quality of life”, seems to prove the dictum beyond doubt.

To be fair, the event attracted a respectable - albeit far from spectacular – crowd; but while this shows that the Parliamentary opposition still has the  organisational ability to mobilise its core supporters, it tells us more about the anger that the PN is trying to tap into, than about the PN itself.

Judging by the issues raised in Bernard Grech’s wide ranging speech - in which he touched on everything from the environment and corruption, to the cost of living – the intention was to strike a chord of dissatisfaction, not just among the elderly cohort of traditional PN voters who predominated the crowd; but also among middle-of-the-road voters, who feel abandoned by an increasingly detached government, which continues to favour certain lobbies -  and to shower a small cabal of beneficiaries, with government largesse - even in these difficult times.    

In fact, the highlight of Grech speech was his broadside against Abela’s “government of the few”: a message which resonates more when people start feeling the pinch.

But this only highlights the flipside to last Sunday’s turnout: surely, it would have been a lot higher, had the protest appealed to everyone who feels strongly about those issues: instead of merely a coterie of traditional PN voters, who would have attended anyway.  

And this is to be expected, given that the Opposition is still mired in divisions and contradictions; and therefore unable to channel all this angst, into an aspiration for a truly different model of governance.

Nonetheless, the protest did go some way towards signaling to disaffected voters that the opposition is present.  In fact, despite the very poor branding, the party seems to have rediscovered its organizational ability: a timely reminder that politics is not just about memes and social media presence, but also about mobilizing supporters on the ground.  

Still, the Nationalist Party should not be deluded by what is essentially a mobilization of a restricted group of committed voters: especially because the Opposition has little to offer to working class voters in terms of concrete policies, such as the living wage. 

In short, there is little indication that the Opposition has made any electoral inroads in the past months.  And while disenchantment may be creeping into the government camp, Prime Minister Abela may well be seen as the tried-and-tested navigator steering the country in difficult times (as he already projected himself during the pandemic).  

Yet Abela could also risk the same fate asGonzi before him: who also projected the same image during the 2009 recession.  His own troubles will start the moment the electorate blames him for any decrease in their standard of living, especially in a country where so-called ‘persons of trust’ are still living ‘the best of times’.      

In fact, while the Prime Minister has been largely absent during the summer months - his electoral success having afforded him a long holiday - Bernard Grech has been fighting for his own political survival after his electoral drubbing. 

The protest itself may well have been a response to internal criticism of his decision not to hold the traditional mass meeting on the eve of Independence Day.  In this sense, it was more about saving Bernard Grech’s leadership, than challenging Labour’s dominance.  

But the greatest shortcoming of last week’s protest was the absence of any sensible build-up, in the shape of townhall meetings with different segments of society: which would have given the general public – and not just the few hundreds who attended – at least the impression that the Nationalist Party represents their aspirations, too.  

In this sense, the party needs to go into listening mode, and fashion its message in a way which reconciles its ‘party principles’ (whatever these are) with popular aspirations.  And it certainly can’t afford to go into yet another General Election, still unsure of what it actually stands for on major issues like civil liberties, immigration, the environment, taxation and labour market policies, etc.  

All the same, anger is also an essential part of the political equation; and it plays an even greater role in midterm elections, where people enjoy ‘teaching their party’ a lesson, knowing full-well that its tenure of government is not at stake.  

One would therefore expect Bernard Grech to raise the ante in anticipation of European and local elections in 2024. For any failure to reduce the gap would spell out trouble for his leadership: especially in view of his commitment to seek an internal confirmation, if the party fails to elect three MEPs.  

In brief, any hope for recovery in the next general elections depends on the PN’s ability to nurture the protest vote in the interim MEP elections.  But while this is an indispensable step, the party’s long-term fortunes also depend on articulating a strong message.