Year of the long knives

Political discussion, especially on the social media, has become increasingly hostile and vitriolic, to the point that we seem to be more concerned with airing our own political pet hates and dislikes, than with actually debating matters of principle and substance

The revelations on Adrian Delia’s personal life have now metastasised into a circus, the like of which unfortunately always finds itself taking place in media and the social media world of public chatter and gossip.

As always in such delicate matters, it is difficult to ascertain how much of the allegations hounding the Opposition leader is rooted in truth, and how much is motivated by the turmoil currently raging within the PN (or, for that matter, by grievances of an altogether more intimate, personal kind).

Nonetheless, it does not bode well that personalized attacks on politicians have been ‘normalised’ to such a degree. It reflects on the aura of profound political disquietude that has descended on Malta since last year’s murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Political antagonism – in itself a vital component of any functioning democracy – has now become an end in itself. Political discussion, especially on the social media, has become increasingly hostile and vitriolic, to the point that we seem to be more concerned with airing our own political pet hates and dislikes, than with actually debating matters of principle and substance.

From this vantage point, it is a small step to justify any intrusion into privacy, to any degree, especially if the target is a public figure. Any excuse to damage a political adversary has come to be viewed as automatically legitimate… even if (as domestic violence accusations so often tend to do) it may also expose innocent third parties to risk. Maltese politics are now a war of utter annihilation: and rarely has the saying ‘all is fair in love and war’ been more appropriate.

This has been the case for some time; but the latest controversies surrounding Delia’s marital life entail grave possible consequences for the country.

For Delia in particular, the problems are manifold. The public is now looking in from the outside, passing judgment over allegations that lack the necessary context for judgement to be passed over. Delia’s own parliamentary group is fragmented, and MPs disloyal to Delia are hoping that the accelerated public scandal, over the man who wants to take the Nationalists into power, will dead-leg him enough to be forced to resign.

Thirdly, Delia’s aspiration to become prime minister is now publicly dented by the public’s entirely justified perception that Delia lacks the necessary support of both his own family, and a substantial part of his parliamentary group. In political terms, Delia could already be a write-off.

It goes without saying that allegations of domestic violence are not to be taken lightly. But far from indulging into the usual bout of victim-blaming, people may legitimately question whether Nickie Vella de Fremeaux’s allegations were intended to kill any chance of her husband having supervised access to his children during the Christmas holidays: by mounting a counter-response to Delia’s urgent request to the courts on Christmas eve, and then – on the very same day of that request – have that egregious excerpt of the counter-response leaked to various sections of the press.

Even the recordings of Delia’s intimate family life – arguments that are not alien to any ordinary family – seem to be so far merely intended to mire the PN leader’s denouement into further scandal: as if mundane squabbles between parents and children are not par for the course in family life.

Without minimizing the seriousness of the accusations, it can be seen that we dealing with a very sui generis case.

Delia is clearly facing many adversaries on various fronts, which – for the country’s democratic life – means that the Opposition leader is not only occupied with matters of the public, but also of a private life in which he is harangued and which leaves him facing important questions of social and financial importance.

Can a man who aspires to be prime minister face such a Sisyphean challenge? Can Delia – or anyone else – genuinely cope with both the pressures of government, and the pressures of his own family strife? Given that we are also talking about a potential prime minister in waiting, these are by no means irrelevant questions.

Another point worth raising is the fear of Delia’s internal opponents, who remain inimical to a democratically-elected leader because he was not their own choice. This is part of the legacy of Simon Busuttil’s democratisation of the leadership election; and yet Delia’s election so far has been treated with irreverent disdain by those who did not support his popular appeal.

To date, there has been a faction within the PN that just can’t stomach the fact that Delia won last year’s leadership election. How far is this feeling ingrained inside the PN’s forma mentis, and should we fear it manifesting itself outside of the party?

As the MEP elections approach, Adrian Delia will be focused on minimising the losses his party is expected to make. The public has probably already made its mind up. Unless Delia manages to overcome his personal troubles and salvage his political career, the long knives will have been long sharpened by June 2019.