Crunch time for the PN

As things stand, only two possible outcomes may yet avert the total annihilation of the PN: either Delia emerges reconfirmed by a clear, unequivocal majority (the larger, the better); or conversely, an equally unambiguous rejection of Delia as leader

The fact that 200 Nationalist Party councilors have signed a petition calling for a confidence vote in Adrian Delia is unprecedented in the PN’s 125-year history.

This is not so much because leadership challenges are, in themselves, unheard-of in that party. Though different in the details, today’s anomalous circumstances bear parallels with the tense situation after the 1976 election: when a group of ‘rebel’ MPs likewise banded together to oust former leader George Borg Olivier.

Both procedurally and contextually, however, the two scenarios are quite different. The situation today is far more complex than a straightforward case of the younger generation challenging the older, established elite (as was the case in 1977).

On the surface, today it is Delia who can claim to represent the ’rebel’ faction, in a tug-of-war to wrest the party structures back from the ‘old guard’. Delia’s surprise victory at the 2017 leadership election was underpinned precisely by his claim that the ‘establishment’, ‘status quo’ faction – represented by Simon Busuttil and his allies - had hijacked the party, and was unwilling to relinquish its hold on power. And by backing Delia over the more traditional contenders, the PN executive seemed to agree at the time.  

Paradoxically, however, those who seek to oust Delia also talk of their initiative as an attempt to ‘end the status quo’. Like many paradoxes, it is less immediately contradictory than it might at first appear. Though only two years old, the Delia leadership is, de facto, the current status quo within the PN. And while his intentions may have been to strike a new course for the party, it is also painfully apparent that Delia has so far failed to achieve that aim.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

His attempts to overpower (or otherwise contain) his internal critics have clearly foundered. Moreover, the last EP lection represented an opportunity to present his credentials as a leader with a new and different ‘way’.

None of that actually materialized in the first two years of his leadership stint. So while his supporters may have a point, when they blame the result on the faction inimical to Delia… it remained Delia’s responsibility to bring the rebellion to heel.  He did not do so, and the election result merely reconfirmed the 2017 rejection of the PN by large swathes of its own supporters.

From this perspective, the faction now seemingly ‘led’ by Ivan Bartolo appears to be right in its claims that, with Delia at the helm, the Nationalist Party has become unelectable.

Nonetheless, the extent of the divisions that now lay exposed also make any long-term rehabilitation of the Nationalist Party appear impossible to achieve. Before the petition was even submitted to the council, a counter-petition was already in full swing to ensure that Delia’s position remains unchallenged.

One does not even need to take sides to appreciate that, whatever the outcome, a considerable portion of the PN’s voter-base will be left politically ‘homeless’. It seems that both sides have conspired to make this a final battle for all-out domination of the party… little realizing that, in so doing, they will almost certainly rip the PN apart.

As things stand, only two possible outcomes may yet avert the total annihilation of the PN: either Delia emerges reconfirmed by a clear, unequivocal majority (the larger, the better); or conversely, an equally unambiguous rejection of Delia as leader.

In the former case, the 200 rebel signatories will see their cause re-dimensioned to a small and ultimately unsuccessful political ‘coup’. Under those circumstances, Delia would be justified in showing his internal critics the door. The PN would be weakened in the short-term, with the loss of a not-insubstantial number of party members who would be forced to ‘walk the plank’, as it were.

But Delia himself would finally be free to reinvent the party without unnecessary spokes in the wheels. He would be left with a smaller platform to build on… but at least, he would have the opportunity to lead the party unhindered.

The opposite scenario would naturally spell an instant end to the Delia leadership, and this time it will be his own allies to be evicted with him. Again, the party would be shorn of roughly half its parliamentary group… and, in both cases, the short-term voter fall-out would be disastrous.

All the same, both possible outcomes (neither of which is very likely) remain preferable to the alternative possibilities.  A borderline vote, either way, would not resolve the central conflict. The winning faction would simply inherit a party still beleaguered by internal dissent.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that where no contest takes place at all, despite the 200-strong petition. If the PN executive council itself is seen to quash any attempt to oust Delia, it would drive an irreparable wedge between the factions: possibly risking splitting the party into even more rival groups.

Under such circumstances, Delia would win the battle, but lose the war. He would remain at the helm of an unleadable party.At this stage, only a clear showing in favour of one or the other of the two factions has any hope of averting the catastrophe. It is undeniably crunch-time for the PN.