Busuttil’s tightrope walk

Even if it is unfair to saddle Busuttil himself with all the blame for the PN’s crushing defeat in March, it remains a fact that his campaign performance compounded the impression of a party that is deeply prejudiced and enamoured of division.

If Simon Busuttil is confirmed today by 66% of the party councillors as the Nationalist Party's new leader after Lawrence Gonzi - a formality, one would assume, although nothing can ever be taken for granted - he will immediately find himself walking a very delicate tightrope indeed.

As reported by our Sunday edition, news of Busuttil's provisional victory last Saturday was greeted by jubilation in the Labour Party headquarters: Busuttil having already been identified as a net contributor to last month's mammoth electoral defeat for the PN.

Naturally, celebrations in the Labour camp may well be premature. After all, Mintoff thought facing Fenech Adami would be a piece of cake in 1977... and in any case, five years is an eternity in politics, and literally anything can happen before the next election.

Besides, even though he remains closely associated with the electoral campaign disaster, Simon Busuttil has already indicated that he has ideas of his own for the future direction of the party. Indeed, his first challenge will be to prove that he is his own man.

Still, the PN councillors have effectively chosen someone who is perceived to represent continuity of an administration that has already been rejected by the electorate. Many Nationalists were openly disappointed by the choice, arguing that what the party really needed was a clean break with its recent past.

From this perspective, the choice of Busuttil is also symptomatic of the very complaint that had already cost the same party so dear at the last election: i.e., that the PN has lost touch with the people... and in particular with a growing section of its own support base.

Even if it is unfair to saddle Busuttil himself with all the blame for the PN's crushing defeat in March, it remains a fact that his campaign performance compounded the impression of a party that is deeply prejudiced and enamoured of division.

Much as he would later try to distance himself from this perception, Busuttil nonetheless provided much of the ammunition for the Labour Party's successful campaign strategy, which was based specifically on a call for national unity.

That Busuttil would now actively try to project an entirely different image is of course understandable... but the inconsistency with his recent declarations is simply too conspicuous to ignore.

Which raises the question: what sort of thinking would have gone into the choice of Busuttil? Where is the political strategy in choosing to be led by someone who has already lost an unprecedented number of Nationalist voters, and whose main objective is now to win them back?

Ironically, one is forcefully reminded of the dilemma the Labour found itself in immediately after the 2003 election, even if the precise circumstances do not mirror each other perfectly (in Labour's case, the party chose to retain Alfred Sant as leader in spite of two successive electoral defeats, thus making the third consecutive defeat inevitable).

The Labour Party would go on to pay an exorbitant price for that mistake: it would not only remain in Opposition far longer that necessary - but after years of defending Sant's anti-EU platform tooth and nail, the entire party (and Joseph Muscat in general) was forced to perform an unlikely U-turn that dented its credibility as a whole.

If Busuttil is confirmed this evening, his first task will likewise no doubt be to heal the rifts left in the wake of the election result and to reach out to disillusioned former PN voters. Above all, he will have to engineer a long-lost feeling of unity and team spirit in the Nationalist Party, which would be difficult at the best of times, let alone at a point when the party is already at its lowest ever electoral ebb.

It is therefore crucial that he avoid repeating the mistake made by Gonzi after his own leadership election, which was to sideline perceived rivals.

Initial indications are confused on this point. Busuttil's main 'rival', Mario de Marco, has already ruled out contesting for the post of deputy leader - but has publicly shown his willingness to occupy any post the party is prepared to offer him.

This can only be interpreted as his willingness to accept the deputy leadership in an uncontested election, which would also be recognition of his good showing in the leadership contest and the fact that he was the first choice of a sizeable number of councillors.

Most of all such a gesture would unite the party and allow all councillors who voted for de Marco to still feel integrated. If this were to happen, Simon Busuttil would not only display magnanimity in victory, but would also reach out to the many disillusioned Nationalists who abandoned the party in droves at the last election.

If, on the other hand, the post is contested and won by Beppe Fenech Adami - who, like Busuttil, is also closely associated with the conservative faction favoured by Gonzi - the same sense of disunity is likely to deepen further.

Small wonder, then, that the Labour Party would celebrate at the news of Busuttil's elevation to leader, even if it remains to be seen who will really have the last laugh in the end.

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