Mutiny in the Opposition

Certainly it is not ‘unusual’ for incoming party leaders to face internal dissent among warring factions. But such tensions are normally shielded from public view... if nothing else, to limit the damage caused to the party as a whole

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The situation facing the Nationalist Party today is in many ways unprecedented. Certainly it is not ‘unusual’ for incoming party leaders to face internal dissent among warring factions. But such tensions are normally shielded from public view... if nothing else, to limit the damage caused to the party as a whole.

With the election of Adrian Delia as PN leader, however, the time-honoured tradition of ‘keeping up appearances’ seems to have been jettisoned altogether.  Delia’s ordeal to acquire a seat in parliament is but one of many public indicators that he is facing an open revolt by the Nationalist backbench. Eventually it fell to Jean-Pierre Debono to relinquish his parliamentary seat to make way for the new leader... but only after negotiations with several other MPs came to nought. 

Even Debono’s sacrifice appears to have been reluctant... possibly even pressured. On more than one occasion, Debono had previously denied rumours that he intended to give up his seat. He even described media reports to that effect as ‘lies’.

The fact that he eventually did concede his seat therefore strongly suggests that it was a last-minute face-saver after all other efforts had failed. And it may prove costly to Delia, too.

According to sister newspaper Illum, as many as two-thirds of the Opposition parliamentary group – around 20 MPs – do not support Delia as leader. So if (as is widely expected) he takes on Jean-Pierre Debono as his personal assistant – together with Pierre Portelli as chief of staff – he would have already lost one of his five allies in the parliamentary group.

Delia therefore enters parliament from a position of political weakness, which may further complicate the route for him to take the oath of Opposition leader. 

According to the Constitution, that office requires the support of the parliamentary group: going so far as to state that “If, in the judgment of the President, a member of the House of Representatives other than the Leader of the Opposition, has become the Leader in the House of the opposition party having the greatest numerical strength in the House; or, as the case may be, the Leader of the Opposition has ceased to command the support of the largest single group of members in opposition to the Government, the President shall revoke the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition.”

Admittedly, it is highly unlikely for the President to intervene. But the possibility alone underscores the sheer precariousness of the situation within the main Opposition party today.

For despite not enjoying the full backing of his MPs, Delia had emerged as the clear favourite in the recent leadership race. He was elected to lead the PN (which, traditionally, also implies leading the Opposition) with a clear mandate from the party’s paid-up members.

By rebelling against him so openly, the dissenting MPs are also defying the express wishes of the Nationalist Party’s electors: the true ‘owners’ of the PN, as it were.

Moreover, Delia makes up for his lack of collegial support in terms of grassroots popularity. If the rebels’ intention is to sabotage and eventually overthrow his leadership, the PN may well face losing significant segments of its core voter base... and with it the prospect of ever returning to winning ways again.

Under such circumstances, the task of unifying the party becomes an uphill struggle. But it is a struggle that must be endured by both sides, if Malta is to retain a healthy parliamentary balance between Government and Opposition.

Clearly, the forces working against Delia from within the PN need to take a step back, and understand the damage that is being caused to the party as a whole. 

This might involve understanding that the ‘Nationalist Party’, as we know it today, is not the only possible incarnation of that party. Indeed, it became the PN that we know primarily because it changed over the years. This, too, is a period of change that the party malcontents must sooner or later accept as a reality. 

But Delia, too, must come up with different strategies if he wishes to avoid an undignified end to his career as leader. 

One key figure in the equation is his defeated rival in the leadership election, Chris Said. Delia has yet to make proper overtures to Said: be it in the form of offering him the deputy leadership, or getting him on board in other ways. 

Above all, Delia must be cautious not to create more friction than is necessary. This may involve toning down his declared objective to make a clean break with the past. That the PN may need a ‘new way’ after a string of electoral defeats is a given: but a new way that destroys the party is hardly an ideal solution.

Overcoming the present impasse must therefore surely also involve embracing the recent past, not rejecting it. Delia must somehow find a way to bridge the differences that threaten to tear the PN apart: while also improving upon the PN’s way of doing politics, and offering a viable alternative government to Labour.

This will not be achieved by evoking nostalgic visions of the past, but by looking to the future.