Delia’s baptism of fire

It was certainly no small feat to win the PN election under such circumstances, but Adrian Delia faced ubiquitous opposition at all levels

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Newly elected PN leader Adrian Delia is well within his rights to exult at his victory last Saturday. It was certainly no small feat to win under such circumstances. Disadvantaged from the outset by way of being a complete outsider to the party structures, Delia also faced ubiquitous opposition at all levels: not least, unanimous censure by the Nationalist Party’s executive council. 

Several prominent PN exponents threatened to resign if he won; and with very few exceptions, virtually the full spectrum of Maltese media pundits and opinion makers had weighed in heavily against him.

From this perspective, Delia’s win appears a remarkable feat of perseverance and combative spirit. Paradoxically, this accounts for his undeniable appeal to segments of the party grassroots. It has been a long time since a PN leadership hopeful put up such a spirited (and successful) fight. Many within that party clearly feel that this lack of fighting spirit had contributed to the PN’s string of successive defeats.

Nonetheless, it remains a Pyrrhic victory for Adrian Delia: who inherits a bitterly divided party. Whether he will prove as successful a PN leader as he was a leadership contender, now depends on a very different ability: the ability to build bridges, and forge necessary alliances even (where necessary) with antagonists.

Needless to say, this has been a hallmark of all successful political leaders in the past. Eddie Fenech Adami was every inch a combatant when it came to opposing the governments of Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in the 1970/80s... but it was his ability to forge tactical alliances that ensured almost uninterrupted electoral success over the next two decades.

As such, Delia’s first priority is to reunite the PN’s warring factions. It remains to be seen whether he will follow the example of Fenech Adami, and offer Chris Said the deputy leadership – traditionally, the only tried-and-tested way to quell internal dissent and heal political wounds. It is equally debatable whether Said would actually accept the offer.

But that would only be a start. Delia’s internal antagonists go beyond Said himself. It will be interesting to see how Delia will deal with officials who opposed him: especially Jason Azzopardi, Karol Aquilina and others who were highly vocal in their dissent. 

One of the problems faced by Delia is that much of his internal opposition is composed of people who are (unlike himself) sitting MPs. One might also mention Simon Busuttil: who, despite relinquishing the leadership, has still retained his Parliamentary seat, and has vowed to use it to ‘continue the fight against corruption’.

Those words must have sounded ominous, to a newly-elected PN leader who has been accused of ‘corrupt practices’ – including money-laundering – during the campaign.

Beyond internal reconciliation, Delia also faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding the PN: a party that has been deflated by consecutive, and increasingly humiliating, defeats.

It is imperative that, as PN leader, Adrian Delia starts offering an alternative leadership vision on a national level... and not merely to project himself as an alternative to Busuttil within the PN.

It is not just the PN that has been bruised and battered by this election. The country has been left devoid of any serious Opposition, at a time when there is a patent need for someone to stand up to Joseph Muscat’s strongman leadership style. Even Muscat himself has publicly acknowledged the need for a strong Opposition, to keep his own government in check. 

Delia has already shown some strength of character in the course of the campaign. But he has so far been less persuasive in articulating a political message to counterbalance Muscat’s mercantilist politics. We have not been given a clear intention of how Delia will behave as Opposition leader (or, for that matter, how he intends to acquire a Parliamentary seat).

It is clear, for instance, that Muscat himself is already prodding and testing the mettle of his new political adversary. Last Sunday, he launched the first salvo, saying that Delia should revise Busuttil’s decision not to contribute to the discussion on waste management.

Delia replied that he would not let the government dictate the PN’s agenda. This may have been music to the ears of party militants, but it is hardly helpful to have an Opposition that doesn’t even want to participate in important national discussion. The government may have no business to dictate the PN’s agenda... but waste management is part of the national agenda; and no Opposition party can afford to be absent.

Separately, Delia’s response offers no alternative whatsoever to Busuttil’s way of doing politics. One is left to ponder what Delia actually meant by his slogan, ‘A New Way’.

Still, these are early days to make such judgments. Love him or hate him – as people seem to do in equal measure – Delia has undeniably managed to re-energise at least part of the PN. His first few days have seen him making inroads even with his critics: with commentators on social media noting how well he did in his interview with Peppi Azzopardi.

It will, however, take a lot more than that for Adrian Delia to set his own stamp on the party and country.