A challenge and an opportunity

The PN must give serious consideration to as many contenders as possible for the leadership, rather than limit the choice to what would likely be the rubber-stamping of a foregone conclusion.

Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna

In the wake of last week's electoral result, clouds appear to be gathering for a 'battle' (metaphorically speaking, of course) for the future of the Nationalist Party.

With Lawrence Gonzi confirming that he has no intention of contesting for the leadership once more, and with secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier likewise bowing out of the race, it seems the Nationalist Party is uniquely poised to reinvent itself, and to re-emerge with an all-but totally new leadership team.

Under normal circumstances it would be inopportune for a newspaper to comment on what is ultimately an internal party decision. But so rarely do such events occur, that it would not be an exaggeration to say that this represents an opportunity not only for the PN, but also for the country as a whole.

This is partly because Malta has experienced a curiously haphazard spurt of political development in the few decades since independence. We talk about ourselves as a modern and fully-fledged democracy - but even though the claim is entirely justified, in the sense that our Constitutional set-up does indeed reflect all the right principles one associates with the European democratic model... there is still a level upon which our nation has yet to make a break with the recent past.

One example concerns our attitudes towards 'party leadership' - and more to the point, the power that such positions entail, and the quasi-adulation with which leaders are regarded. Suffice it to say that the Nationalist Party alone boasts an impressive 120-year history... and yet it has only had five leaders to speak of in all that time. These were Fortunato Mizzi, Enrico Mizzi, George Borg Olivier, Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi.

At a stretch one could perhaps also include Sir Ugo Mifsud (who briefly replaced Mizzi while the latter was in exile in Uganda during the war); but even so, there was a time where party leaders were practically expected (not unlike Popes) to die in office... as Enrico Mizzi himself in fact did.

On its part Labour has had a broadly similar experience, though it has existed for a much shorter time. But Dom Mintoff ruled that party for an impressive 35 years - and as we all saw after the 2003 election, Alfred Sant (for all the differences that otherwise distinguished him from Mintoff) likewise found it hard to relinquish his iron hold on that party... with the possible result that Labour arguably spent longer in Opposition than it really needed to.

To his credit Larwence Gonzi did not make the same mistake: indeed he is the only party leader in Maltese history to have stepped down immediately after losing his first election. So while the PN is now suffering from the same syndrome that had earlier proven so costly to Labour - i.e., having to reinvent itself after a gruelling defeat - it has nonetheless signalled what may be the beginning of a tradition (as exists in most other European democracies) whereby party leaders no longer consider theirs to be a lifetime tenure... but rather, that the leadership is a purely target-driven job that depends solely on the success or otherwise of one's electoral strategy.

The implications are far-reaching, because this selfsame 'paternalistic' view of party leadership - so ably demonstrated by both Mintoff and Fenech Adami (indeed we all heard a brief echo of it when the latter addressed the last PN mass meeting on the Fosos) has for better or for worse shaped Malta's endemically confrontational way of doing politics.

In view of the forthcoming PN leadership election, it would be useful to point out that - if Gonzi's example is to be taken as a sign of things to come - whoever wins the prize should theoretically view the role as a means to a end - and not as an end in itself. The next leader will therefore have to tailor his (or her, for gender balance is another area where improvements are long overdue) ambitions around a clear target of winning elections... even if, given the extent of the PL's lead, it may be unrealistic to expect success in the first attempt.

Either way, this change in attitude towards the party leadership may well herald a change also in the way leaders are elected. Already voices have been heard (among them, Clyde Puli's) urging the Nationalist Party to revise its statute so that the vote is extended to all card-holding PN members... and not just the so-called 'councillors', many of whom were in any case hand-picked by the outgoing leader.

Again it is not this newspaper's role to weigh in to such discussions... but viewed from the point of view of the country's exigencies (as opposed to only the party's) Puli's advice does have a lot of merit, in the sense that a wider pool of decision-makers is likely to make for a more varied - and therefore wiser - choice.

Given how much there is at stake for the PN, one would assume that the party can only benefit by giving serious consideration to as many contenders as possible... rather than limit the choice to what would likely be (if the election plays out to past scripts) the rubber-stamping of a foregone conclusion.

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"the Nationalist Party to revise its statute so that the vote is extended to all card-holding PN members." <> The result obtaining after such an election would at least pigeon hole card carrying Nationalist members for what they really are, that is whether modern liberals or stagnated conservatives. They will have nowhere to hide then.