Looking backwards to move forward

It is perhaps ironic that Delia’s attempt to address these issues has involved appointing a veteran from the Fenech Adami era – a classic case of ‘looking backwards to move forward’

By appointing Louis Galea to preside over the reform of the party, PN leader Adrian Delia has taken a risky gamble.

Some suspect that by with this appointment, Delia is merely buying time: offering a promise of reform, to ensure confirmation by councillors in a vote to be taken on 27 July.

Such scepticism is warranted, even because there are doubts regarding the validity of the vote itself. It has just been announced that the petition calling on Delia to resign has been deemed ‘invalid’: instead, the councillors will vote a motion put forward by Delia himself, which is substantially different from the original proposed question.

This marks a realisation of what this newspaper termed the ‘worst-case scenario’ in a recent editorial: in the sense that it leaves the central question – i.e., should Delia resign? – unanswered.

All the same, it remains a challenge to his leadership. If Delia survives the vote, he will stand to benefit from any organisational reform proposed by Galea.  

But it will remain a reform hammered into place by others: when surely, it should be the party leadership itself to be lighting the way forward.

Given also that Galea is a remnant of the very party ‘establishment’ that Delia was elected to replace, such a reform may also further limit his power in the party. Interviewed by MaltaToday, Galea insisted that his role is to bring water to the horse, not to make it drink. But what will happen if the horse refuses to drink?

Any reform will only succeed if it is fully implemented by the party leader; and it remains to be seen whether Delia will feel comfortable implementing what Galea proposes, if he is re-confirmed leader.  

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Would Delia accept any changes that constrain his own decision-making capabilities? Would he be comfortable with a reform that leaves him vulnerable to the forces within the PN that seem hell-bent on his own removal?

Moreover – while Galea is without any doubt a capable politician endowed with the experience of government - it is doubtful whether any single individual can come up with a workable solution to the existential problems plaguing the PN.  

Galea’s success depends on ensuring that his reform programme gains support across the board, and beyond existing factional divides. This will surely be difficult, considering how unbridgeable the chasm between those factions now appears to be.

Still, Louis Galea may have one important characteristic that has been lacking in the party for the past years: an ability to understand social change, and to translate it into both organisational structures and party identity.

As secretary general between 1977 and 1987, Galea responded to Labour’s hegemony in Maltese society by re-organising the party through the opening of district clubs, and also by appropriating the centre ground of Maltese politics, by accepting various tenets of Mintoff’s social reforms.  

Ironically, the PN now finds itself displaced from the centre by Muscat’s pro-business appeal, and its financial decline is now undermining the party’s territorial presence through the sale or closure of local clubhouses.

As a former district heavyweight in localities like Siggiewi and Mqabba, Galea is all too familiar with those localities in which the PN is now in full retreat.  

Once again, the party needs to find its raison d’etre: and Louis Galea does have a track record of success in that department.

Delia (or any other future leader) must also position his party in a changed spectrum, where Labour has managed to appeal to categories like developers and businessmen who traditionally supported the PN.

Just as in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the party had to accept the welfare state introduced by Mintoff, it may now have to find the courage to accept the permanence of the civil liberties introduced by Muscat.

Then as now, this may well come at the cost of disillusioning particular sectors of the PN’s own voter-base: but if retaining those supporters means rendering one’s own party unelectable, their loss would still translate into electoral gains in the longer term.

Meanwhile, Galea’s task is also imperilled by the dismal state of the party’s finances. To convey one’s message across the party clearly costs money. But raising that funding may expose the PN to more embarrassing situations such as the recent DB Group debacle, and accentuate the PN’s traditional dependence on big financiers: eroding its voice as the champion of the common citizen.

The most serious risk is that the party may enter a downward spiral: being perceived as unelectable, and thus deprived of the funds necessary for its survival. This in turn will lead to greater frustration among MPs who feel that they have no chance of ever becoming part of government. Such frustration is bound to result in more and more infighting. This may well mean that if the party does not reform itself now, it may be heading to an even more uncertain future: possibly even towards extinction.

It is perhaps ironic that Delia’s attempt to address these issues has involved appointing a veteran from the Fenech Adami era – a classic case of ‘looking backwards to move forward’.

But it may yet prove a last opportunity to avoid disaster.