The PN’s dilemma: continuity or change?

The Nationalist party is caught, as in a vice, between the opposing forces of ‘change’ and ‘continuity’

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

As the Nationalist Party leadership race starts (slowly) to hot up, the issue of what is actually at stake for the PN appears to grow ever more crucial.

It is no secret that the party is in the grips of a political identity crisis, with the recent Marriage Equality vote exposing divisions between the party’s ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ factions.

But this is not the only example. Even at this early stage, with only two contenders – Chris Said and Adrian Delia, publicly campaigning so far, and a third, Alex Perici Calascione declared – other intrinsic battle lines are becoming visible.

Said was a prominent Cabinet minister under both Lawrence Gonzi and Simon Busuttil, and bases his campaign largely on the key word ‘experience’. As he told a press conference on Monday: “I do not need to walk into the party with a manual on how politics works, because I have a long list of experiences, touching on every level, since the age of 13.”

Adrian Delia, on the other hand, is a lawyer from outside the party ranks. The Nationalist Party’s machine, he argues, needs to reinvent itself from the ground up, and start dictating a national agenda instead of simply reacting to other people’s agendas. 

“The stakeholders of the party, the councillors and all party members, need to be involved in decision-making and not be left to follow the decisions taken by a small number of people who think they know everything.”

This dichotomy puts its finger on the PN’s current malaise. Delia may or may not enjoy direct support within the party structures: but there can be no doubt that he speaks for many with his perception that the party has had its agenda dictated to it by an invisible ‘clique’. Whether this constitutes an organised group, or simply a prevailing trend of thought within the party, is at this stage immaterial. Two consecutive landslide defeats should be enough to convince the party that a profound change in the way the party manages its structures is now essential.

With the slogan ‘A new Way’, Delia has clearly chosen to campaign on the ‘change’ platform – and other candidates may do likewise. 

Said, on the other hand, represents ‘continuity’. It may at a glance seem like an odd strategy, given the party’s recent electoral performances; but his platform is by no means absurd or ridiculous.

On the contrary, it also pinpoints another dimension to the dilemma. The PN may be reeling from its recent defeats; but as a party it still hearkens nostalgically for a time (not long ago) when it enjoyed almost unassailable electoral strength. There is still a powerful emotional attachment to the principles and values that it once represented.

Said is aware that the average Nationalist, while acknowledging the need for change, is very far from embarrassed by ALL aspects of their party’s past. Just as strict continuity is clearly not an option... ‘radical transformation’ may not necessarily be an ideal solution either.

Clearly, the Nationalist party is caught, as in a vice, between the opposing forces of ‘change’ and ‘continuity’. It is also (or at least, should be) mindful of the example of the Labour party: which faced similar post-defeat turmoil in the past. The profound changes that took place in that party since the 1980s were not brought about directly by Joseph Muscat since 2008. The process took well over 20 years... and all along, there has been a clear line of ‘continuity’ (or at least, an attempt to project one) running throughout.

Naturally, this gives Chris Said a very delicate tightrope to walk: for Said, too, acknowledges that changes are necessary. His challenge, then, is to convince the party delegates that his experience in past Nationalist administrations may ‘qualify’ him to bring the right changes about.

It may appear paradoxical, but only on the surface. Balancing the demand for change with the need for continuity does, after all, require a very clear notion of what the party is and how it works. And certainly there is much to be said for ‘experience’, when the question at stake concerns learning from mistakes.

On his part, Adrian Delia – and any other candidate who contests on the ‘change’ ticket – will face similar dilemmas, and possibly others too. Here, the question is twofold: one, what sort of ‘change’ does Delia have in mind... and two, is he the right person to bring it about?  

The first is the most pressing question, and surprisingly it hasn’t yet been answered. Delia has so far hinted he will bring back formerly rejected personalities to the fold... but that in itself tells us nothing about how he intends to refashion the party.

As for the second, there is certainly room to argue that an outsider to the party-political machine may indeed be the best-placed to fix it. But Delia is also an outsider to politics as a whole; he also has to prove that he can successfully negotiate the notoriously dangerous pitfalls of the political ladder.

Meanwhile, other candidates may step forward: but whatever the final choice on the ballot paper, the contest itself is likely to be decided on the basis of the above dichotomy.