Detoxifying the PN brand

The fast pace of Labour’s civil society reforms left conservatives gasping for air. In the process, the ‘silent majority’ once believed to hold the key to the destruction of any party that would dare usher in gay marriage and adoption, had been dismantled and exposed as cantankerous groups of religious right-wingers

The Nationalist Party’s brand, now officially crystallised as Malta’s ‘second largest party’ by its beleaguered leader, is a losing one.

It is not an indictment on the history of the PN; nor is it a rash judgement on Adrian Delia’s inability to shore up the necessary support to legitimise his continued stewardship of the party. It is simply the label any political observer can affix to a party whose fortunes have been dwindling ever since Lawrence Gonzi, despite putting his name to not a few triumphs of his own, took the helm of the party.

As Delia admitted, Labour is in the throes of a typical Maltese electoral cycle during which successful governments are bolstered by their electoral machines as a ‘natural party of government’. It was once the PN, which made Malta an independent member of the Commonwealth punching above its weight; and then it was Labour, building the country’s industrial base and guaranteeing a wide welfare safety net; and again it was the PN, with Eddie Fenech Adami taking Malta out of its democratic deficit and towards its European destiny and a liberalised economy. Now it is Joseph Muscat, a formidable challenger to the Nationalist hegemony once believed to be indestructible, who quickly disproved Simon Busuttil’s claim that ‘Labour won’t work’ early on in the day.

Well before 2004, the PN had been struggling with the changes brought upon Maltese society by its own liberalisation programme and bid to be an EU member state. Fenech Adami’s big tent was one under which conservative voters always co-existed with more liberal currents.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Conservatives had also accepted the party’s EU vocation on the mistaken premise that this reinforced Malta’s membership in a white Christian club, a final push to the south to consolidate Europe’s Mediterranean border. But they were completely unprepared for the change unleashed by the watershed divorce referendum and later by Muscat’s liberalising reforms.

The fast pace of Labour’s civil society reforms left conservatives gasping for air. In the process, the ‘silent majority’ once believed to hold the key to the destruction of any party that would dare usher in gay marriage and adoption, had been dismantled and exposed as cantankerous groups of religious right-wingers. Muscat had managed to reinvent the Labour Party as a socially liberal version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s third way politics.

The PN now stands divided between Delia’s supporters those who never accepted the election of Adrian Delia as its leader, ironically by way of this faction’s own decision to wide the election to all paid-up members. Delia, whose candour with the press has been a refreshing change to his petulant predecessor, believes the PN has “not yet changed enough”, and has more than often admitted that parts of his party believes it has “a divine right” to rule.

It is not just a frank admission. It is a swipe at Simon Busuttil’s way of doing politics, which basically boiled down to challenging the moral legitimacy of Muscat’s government. The Panama Papers was a watershed moment in the Labour government’s history, one of Muscat’s worst blemishes. But Busuttil overplayed his hand when he took ownership of the discredited Egrant allegations. Even for a good part of the electorate, his moralistic anti-corruption crusade smacked of a short-cut to power, without showing signs of real contrition for the party’s own misdeed; and as usual showing moments of gross overreach in a campaign where he even called out to the President of the Republic to dislodge Muscat from power.

While Delia is still seeking ways of changing his party and reaching out to more people, he is still stuck with a dilemma of where the PN can position itself ideologically.

There is no quick fix to this problem. Labour is the new new centre, luring the business class to its new neoliberal tune while still giving visibility and rights to social groups, which had been marginalised for decades. So where can the PN move?

An obvious gap on the left – radical environmental consciousness, a new way of conceiving economic growth, civil liberties, a fight against land grabs, stronger on rental control and minimum wage – sound more like political science-fiction for a party which historically has had a centre-right tradition. Local elections still show the PN remaining stronger in affluent bourgeois localities like Sliema, Lija, Attard and Swieqi, which harbour discontent on environmental issues; but the PN remains weak in southern and central localities where its message is not even coming across.  Despite its lurch to the right, Muscat’s Labour still has changed the life of working and middle-class voters through measures like free childcare, free school transport and free exams.

Undoubtedly, the PN will try to position itself on the right wing of the spectrum for free markets if Labour would ever attempt some form of market ‘control’, allowing it to reconnect with the business class, while improving its shadow cabinet so as to present itself as a centrist alternative: a party that can manage the economy better than Muscat’s. Certainly it will have to resolve its conservative/liberal divide, probably by opting for freedom of conscience on all ethical issues – except abortion – which will probably remain the party’s identity fetish.

It may also retain a more compassionate image on social welfare while sticking to its economically liberal roots.

A return to form for the PN of the Fenech Adami era? Only when its mends its burning bridges

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