The race isn’t over yet

The result of Saturday's first round of voting in the PN leadership election was an eye-opener but can we predict the eventual election result?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The result of Saturday’s first round of voting in the PN leadership election was an eye-opener in many ways. But predicting the eventual election result is not one of them.

Naturally, a certain euphoria in Adrian Delia’s camp was inevitable. Given the extent of the opposition he was facing – with the Nationalist Party’s executive council unanimously urging Delia to withdraw – even the fact that Adrian Delia is now through to the second round can be taken as a small victory unto itself.

But it may be a pyrrhic victory... and it may also be misleading in its implications.

The fact that Adrian Delia garnered a majority among 1,360 councillors is not, in itself, a clear indication of the voting intentions of 22,000 party members. Even if it were, Saturday’s result would not automatically be favourable to Delia’s chances of victory. 

One thing this election revealed is the existence of two pivotal factions within the PN. Before Saturday, this had manifested itself only among public party officials, many of whom made their preferences (and the animosity between the two sides) more than manifest.

But the grip of either faction on the wider party membership is by no means clear. If, as many suspect, Chris Said will automatically inherit the support-base of Alex Perici Calascione (eliminated in the first round); and if the divide among party members is along the same lines as the councillors’ split vote... then Chris Said may be looking at a potential majority in two weeks’ time.

There are, however, too many variables in the equation. Little is known, for instance, about the extent of Delia’s support among the wider electorate. Certainly his has been the loudest and most enthusiastic following... but how widely shared are those sentiments among the Nationalist electorate at large? Does Delia really have all the grassroots support that many believe he does? Or is it the same score of people following him around? One can only guess.

Chris Said is now even using the argument that since he was the favourite to win Saturday’s election and didn’t... Adrian Delia could lose the upcoming vote, even if, at the moment, he is being touted as the favourite. 

The logic in that statement is unassailable... but politics, as we can all see, is not always entirely logical. One point Said may be overlooking is the possible reason why he failed to meet those expectations. 

Delia may have many factors working against him in this election – some (but not all) self-inflicted. But Said has to contend with a widespread perception that he represents ‘continuity’ from the Busuttil era. He helped build that perception himself, with his public acknowledgements of Busuttil’s achievements.

This may return to haunt him. Among the things Saturday’s result made visible is a clear intention to steer the PN away from the influence of its former leadership. This emerges plainly from the fact that Busuttil himself made a last-ditch effort to sway the councillors’ vote – stating publicly that if he were in Delia’s shoes, he would heed the PN administrative council’s decision (to ask Delia to reconsider his candidacy). Yet a clear majority backed Delia, in open defiance of Busuttil’s advice.

Delia’s victory (even if only in the first round) is therefore also a defeat for Simon Busuttil. Said would be wise to be mindful of this when facing the decision of a much larger selection of the party.

Moreover, Delia had publicly accused the party machinery of trying to sabotage his candidacy, by working to have someone else elected at all costs. If so, what does his victory (albeit not by an absolute majority) say about the party machinery’s effectiveness in persuading the councillors?

Said now knows he cannot rely exclusively on such tactics if he intends to win in two weeks’ time. This is perhaps positive, as it should shift the emphasis away from such considerations, and towards where such elections should be fought: on the basis of ideas and issues.

This is equally applicable to Delia, who has so far only managed to ride the crest of an ‘anti-establishment’ wave within the PN at the moment. Many feel Delia was appealing to the grassroots, to the ‘man on the street’; and yet, it was the party councillors who voted: part of the party’s so-called “establishment”, that Delia had riled so much against in his campaign.

And beyond a little strutting and posturing on the podium, we have seen little of what Adrian Delia actually intends to offer, should he emerge the winner. Nor does his partial victory expunge all the criticism levelled against him during the campaign. Unanswered questions remain about his overseas assets. They will continue to be raised after September 17.  How will Delia handle such issues, as leader of both PN and the Opposition? 

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Delia has managed to reinvigorate and re-energize some supporters to a level of enthusiasm unseen since the early days of Eddie Fenech Adami. Everyone agrees that the PN was in desperate need of something to re-energize its supporters.

Whether Delia is the answer, and whether he will manage to hold the Nationalist Party together, remains to be seen.