The first year of Adrian Delia

Delia’s recent statements, echoing populist concerns with immigration, have raised uncomfortable questions about the directions he intends to take the PN

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

 

When Adrian Delia won the PN leadership race a year ago, he did so with all the odds seemingly stacked against him. Just weeks before the vote, the Nationalist Party Executive Council had urged him to withdraw from the contest altogether: one of several indicators that Delia would be fiercely opposed by a sizeable faction within the party’s own structures.

On top of this internal resistance, Delia was from the outset the underdog in an election also contested by veteran heavyweight Chris Said. He had no direct experience in politics at all; no connection to the PN’s historic battle-cries; and no seat in Parliament with which to assume the role of Opposition leader – as well as, at the time, no guarantee that any Nationalist MP would vacate his or her seat for that purpose.

From that perspective, Adrian Delia’s victory was in itself an extraordinary achievement, for which he deserves full credit.

But it can also be seen to have come at a significant political cost: pre-emptively saddling the incoming leader with the unenviable task of having to preside over a fractured, demoralised and rudderless party.

To be fair, it was not a situation of his own making. In this sense, his very inexperience served as an advantage: whatever his other faults, Delia could not be blamed for the successive losses of the 2013 and 2017 elections; still less, for the sheer scale of those electoral defeats.

But from the outset, his own electoral bid for the leadership was framed as an attempt to ‘rescue’ the party from the clutches of a ‘clique’ that had ‘hijacked’ it. And while the administrative council tried to stop him from contesting, the PN’s own General Council chose Delia over Said – who was (perhaps unfairly) viewed as a ‘continuation’ candidate.

Delia therefore took over the Nationalist party on the promise of ‘restoring it’ to its rightful owners: with a view to eventually rebuilding it into a political force capable of mounting a serious challenge to Joseph Muscat’s compact and united Labour Party. That would be no small task even for the most seasoned political veteran: let alone a political novice, as Delia was at the time.

But that was a year ago. Since then, there have been numerous developments of significant impact on the local situation. Almost immediately came the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which dramatically changed the entire political landscape. A change in Italian government has meanwhile also catapulted the issue of irregular immigration back to the fore: sparking numerous spats and stand-offs between our two countries, and resulting in a fresh wave of immigration-related controversies that are likely to dominate election campaigns in the near future.

Although both outside Delia’s own control, these developments – among others – have also served to further deepen the PN’s internal rift. Daphne’s murder galvanised a grass-roots activism movement that is, in itself, inimical to Delia and all he represents. It has erected still more obstructions to the Nationalist Party’s hope of reuniting its warring factions.

Nor did Delia help his own cause by mishandling the results of the Egrant inquiry. In politics, it is important to choose one’s battles with care. Delia’s haste to demand the resignation of Simon Busuttil betrayed a naive underestimation of his rival’s support levels within the parliamentary group. The PN leader was eventually forced to climb down from his earlier position: weakening his own hand, while strengthening Busuttil’s to the bargain.

Much the same applies to his handling of other issues. Delia’s recent statements, echoing populist concerns with immigration, have raised uncomfortable questions about the directions he intends to take the PN. By arguing that ‘foreigners’ pose a direct threat to ‘Malta’s cultural traditions and values’, Delia has opened himself to criticism of espousing militant right-wing views. And while his words may indeed resonate with significant segments of the electorate, they also portend economic uncertainty in the unlikely event of a PN electoral victory in the near future.

Delia seems to be hinting at a concern with Malta’s current economic model, more than with the presence of foreigners in itself. Anyone in the business community could point out to him that the current economic boom is in itself the direct result of an unprecedented influx of migrant workers: by seeming to object to this strategy, Delia may unwittingly cast his own party as a threat to the survival of several Maltese businesses... including those sectors which have traditionally supported PN in the past.

Moreover, any electoral gains to be achieved by this apparent swing to the right, will have to be compensated by the possible loss of moderate PN voters who expect their party to be a voice of reason and compassion. Ironically, Delia’s populism on this issue may even serve to bolster Joseph Muscat’s image as a ‘moderate’: risking further haemorrhage of votes from PN to Labour.

Having started out on such an inauspicious note, Adrian Delia seems to have created more problems, not fewer, in his first year. Unless he learns from his mistakes and overcomes his political naivety, his future years as PN leader may well prove even more difficult.

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