A blessing in disguise for the PN

The recent resignation of former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono from the Nationalist Party – but not from parliament, where she retains the seat she won in March 2013 – further reduces the Opposition party’s already meagre parliamentary presence to just 29 seats.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Events of the past few weeks have once again reminded us of the importance of having a strong Opposition, especially at a time when the government’s parliamentary advantage appears unassailable.

The recent resignation of former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono from the Nationalist Party – but not from parliament, where she retains the seat she won in March 2013 – further reduces the Opposition party’s already meagre parliamentary presence to just 29 seats. On a separate level, it also underscores the difficulties faced by the Nationalist Party in putting its recent past behind it. 

Debono’s resignation leaves in its wake the uncomfortable whiff of alleged malfeasance which had dogged the Nationalist government until its defeat two years ago. The timing was inauspicious, for a party struggling to reinvent itself as a new and trustworthy political presence in the country.

At the same time, however, the former minister’s departure may be a blessing in disguise for the PN. Though undeniably popular in her home constituency of Gozo, Giovanna Debono in many respects represented the old guard of a party that must now convince the electorate that it has changed its ways since its rejection by the electorate.  

This development therefore also coincides with an opportunity to replace old faces with younger blood, at a time when the PN sorely needs to do just that in order to climb back up the trust ratings.

Besides, with Chris Said relinquishing his role as secretary general to concentrate on Gozo, new possibilities are opened up for the PN to continue a rejuvenation process that has so far been largely successful.

Historically, the post of secretary general has always been viewed as pivotal within the internal structures of the PN (though less so for the Labour Party, where the role is split between different offices). A cursory glance at the party’s current situation seems to confirm that its political state of health depends directly on the person occupying this sensitive office.

The financial situation that now dogs the party can in part be traced to initiatives undertaken by past incumbents, which had saddled the PN with debt: not least the construction of a new party headquarters in Pieta’. 

Elsewhere, the secretary general is also considered indispensable to the party’s entire public relations and communications strategies, especially at election time. It is for this reason that the secretary general is either lionised or vilified following an electoral victory or defeat: ultimately, success or failure of an electoral campaign depends as much on the charisma and energy of the secretary general, as it does on the vision of the party as a whole.

On a more party-political level, the secretary general must also negotiate the complexity of internal rivalries and factions that have up to a point fragmented the PN, especially in the last years of the Gonzi administration. And in the current climate, the party will be looking for a unifying rather than a divisive figure for the role.

Meanwhile, Chris Said’s efforts to address the party’s problems also point towards the importance of the role on an administrative level. Under Said’s stewardship the Nationalist Party has by all accounts turned the page on its previous negative balance sheet: successfully turning around money-losing entities such as NET TV and In-Nazzjon in a way that at least secures their short-term viability.

For this reason alone, Said may be a hard act to follow for the next secretary general. To date, a number of names have been put forward as possible contenders – party whip David Agius, energy spokesman Claudio Grech, and head of European Parliament delegation David Casa being arguably the front-runners (with Casa reputedly in pole position), though there are others on the list. 

On paper, all the names mentioned appear reasonable candidates when the role is viewed purely for its administrative and organisational merits. But the vacancy for secretary general is one which ultimately also affects the public image of the Nationalist Party as a whole.

If the PN is to keep projecting the image of a broad church representing many different views under a single umbrella, the choice of the next secretary general should ideally be someone who does not hail from any discernible faction within the party; and who has both the charisma and administrative skills to galvanise grass roots support, while also reaching out to the many thousands of Nationalist voters who had abandoned the party in droves. 

David Casa, for instance, certainly appeals to the PN grassroots, but would he be ideally positioned to appeal to disenchanted or disgruntled Nationalists: a pivotal category without which the PN cannot hope to win an election? Conversely, a relative outsider such as Claudio Grech might dispel the notion of a party controlled internally by a single faction… but does he have the clout to mobilise the rank and file ahead of the next election? Similar considerations apply to all the other candidates.

Interestingly, this will also be the first administrative decision to be taken by a newly enlarged PN council that has grown from 900 to over 1,500 members. It remains to be seen whether these changes will achieve their declared aim to truly rebuild the Nationalist Party from the bottom up.

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