Inside the PN, a not-so silent revolution

Love him or hate him, Adrian Delia was the choice of the Nationalist Party’s true owners. It was a choice based specifically on a rejection of the Nationalist Old Guard… which in turn now refuses to accept the result of its own democratization of the party

It is by now an open secret that the Nationalist Party is currently riven by internal dissent. PN leader Adrian Delia has been facing calls for his resignation ever since his estranged wife accused him of domestic violence towards her and their children. The couple, who have five children together, are currently going through an acrimonious separation.

Since the allegations were made public, a series of leaked videos and recordings, as well as screenshots seemingly taken from Delia’s phone, have been doing the rounds on social media.

In addition to calls by civil society for Delia to step down, he is also facing a revolt within the PN parliamentary group. Sources who have spoken to MaltaToday claim that the embattled leader has lost the support of a majority of MPs, but still retains the support of a considerable portion of the party’s grassroots, complicating any attempts to force him out.

Until recently, the party machinery was – understandably enough – trying to minimise or belittle claims of an internal war against Delia’s leadership. But the events of the week have made such attempts all but impossible. PN deputy leader Clyde Puli now openly challenges party dissidents to come forward and ‘stop playing games’; earlier, the embattled leader himself declared ‘war’ on ‘traitors’ within the party, in a private message that evidently got leaked to the press.

At such times, it is safe to say that a point of no return has been crossed.

But there is more to this apparently irresolvable internal conflict than simply a question of accepting or rejecting Adrian Delia as leader. It is worth remembering the reasons for Delia’s unexpected triumph at last year’s leadership election. That victory had been made possible by reforms to the PN statute undertaken by none other than former leader Simon Busuttil: who, paradoxically, had all along objected to Delia even before he was anointed leader… to the extent of getting the PN Administrative Council to ask Delia to withdraw his candidature, on the eve of the election.

There are multiple ironies here, and understanding them could hold the key to possibly resolving the unsightly fracas that seems to have gripped Malta’s main Opposition party of late. In February 2014, Busuttil – then PN leader – gave an upbeat speech about his reform of the statute: claiming that the changes would ‘transform the PN into a people’s party’, and provide the tools for the PN to ‘continue regaining the trust of the majority of the electorate’.

“We are undergoing a silent revolution. The PN is once again providing a direction as to how politics should be done,” he said.

That same reform also directly resulted in the election of Adrian Delia as PN leader in 2017: defeating even party veterans such as Chris Said. It was the first leadership election in the PN’s history in which voting was extended also to card-holding members (as opposed to only ‘kunsilliera’, or members of the party’s core structures). And one cannot fail to observe that the democratic choice of this much vaster pool of voters, would have been influenced by Delia’s electoral battle-cry: i.e., that he intended to ‘reclaim’ the PN from a minority that had appropriated it.

Ironically, the revolution against Delia we are witnessing today, is also a revolution against the very reforms that gave the Nationalist Party a much wider say in its own organization. One cannot ‘transform the PN into a people’s party’, and then go on to ignore – or worse still, challenge and oppose – the choice of ‘the people’.

At the same time, however, the leader of a political party cannot expect to remain in office indefinitely, if he lacks the support and trust of his own parliamentary group. In politics, one does not reign merely over one’s own choices or actions; a leader in particular may also tender his resignation over governability issues… such as the fact that he cannot ‘lead’ a party that simply refuses to follow him.

Taken together, what these two considerations suggest is a return to the dilemma that had prompted Busuttil to reform the party in the first place: i.e., the existence of an evident gulf between, on one hand, the structures and the decision-making bodies within that party… and on the other, the wider Nationalist electorate, on whose behalf those structures are supposedly functioning.

Love him or hate him, Adrian Delia was the choice of the Nationalist Party’s true owners. It was a choice based specifically on a rejection of the Nationalist Old Guard… which in turn now refuses to accept the result of its own democratization of the party.

While this cognisance doesn’t necessarily bring with it any solutions to the impasse, it does at least point towards an underlying reality. The bone of contention is not Adrian Delia himself; it is whether the PN is ready to come to terms with its own vision of becoming a ‘people’s party’.

The way forward therefore becomes to either ditch that vision altogether, and return to the same Old Guard that was so recently rejected; or to embrace the new identity of the party, and politely show the Old Guard the door.