[ANALYSIS] After Labour’s massive victory, is it exit stage left for Delia?

Ironically the leader who promised to leave after these elections has soundly beaten the leader who promised to stay on irrespective of the result

Adrian Delia: is it curtains?
Adrian Delia: is it curtains?

Yesterday’s results clearly indicate that Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia has lost a battle on two fronts: failing to mobilise the Nationalist vote and failing to make any inroads in Labour’s vote base. It largely suggests that Labour has retained its level of support while widening the margin over both 2014 and 2017 levels. 

The results suggest that this may be partly due to a segment of PN voters which failed to turn up or voted for third parties. But it also indicates that Delia has failed to narrow the gap. 

While the result does not suggest Labour making any substantial inroads in the PN’s vote, if confirmed, the PN drops to 37% is its worst electoral result in post-independence history. 

In the face of such an electoral defeat, Delia faces a choice between honouring his pre-electoral pledge to stay on, digging his heels in to defend his mandate as PN leader, or to bow out gracefully and giving his mandate back to party members in the hope that they would elect a more successful leader. 

In some ways Delia is in the same position of former Tory leader David Cameron, who had promised to stay on as PM before the Brexit referendum but resigned as soon as results were out. But while Cameron may not have anticipated the upset, making his promise in the firm belief that Brexit was likely, Delia’s promise to stay on was made in the full knowledge of polls predicting his defeat. 

If he stays on, Delia would be doing the same as Simon Busuttil before him, who proceeded to consolidate his leadership after the 2014 defeat only to be crushed in elections three years down the line.  

The only difference is that Busuttil faced an election just a year after being elected party leader during Muscat’s honeymoon period; Delia not only had more time to prepare but he is facing Muscat right in the middle of his second legislature. Yet despite this, Delia lost with an even bigger margin than Busuttil. 

Still, Delia faced one significant handicap which his predecessor did not have. While the party, including its establishment, was united behind Busuttil in 2014, this was not the case with Delia. 

For strategic reasons, Delia had no choice in insisting that he would not resign in the face of defeat. For this would have been a clear invitation to PN voters who distrust him to vote him out by abstaining. Had Delia not taken this stance the party’s defeat may be even bigger than that of today. But now he has a choice on whether to burden the party further with his failure. 

Adrian Delia had repeatedly stated that he would stay on irrespective of the scale of defeat. He made this very clear in last Thursday’s rally when he made it clear that that whatever the people’s verdict was, he and his party were committed to work harder, and to visit people who they did not yet have the occasion to meet. 

In an interview in June 2018, Adrian Delia insisted that he won’t resign after next year’s MEP elections even if he loses by 100,000 votes. “We can lose the MEP election by 90,000 votes or we can lose it by 100,000 votes; we can win all the battleground local councils or we can lose them all, but I won’t even consider resigning. Politics isn’t a game,” Delia told his interviewer. 

He was sending a clear message to those within the party who have not accepted him as party leader and who still hoped that the party will replace him if he is thrashed by Muscat in this round of elections. 

This strategy was dictated by the fact that the party was fighting the elections on two fronts: one pitting the PN against the incumbent government, and one pitting Delia against rebels in his party. It also came in the wake of two internal rebellions: one taking place after the Egrant inquiry which resulted in Delia backtracking on kicking Busuttil out of his parliamentary group, and a post-Christmas rebellion which saw Delia calling the bluff of those asking for his head amidst revelations about his personal life. Yet his enemies may well have been playing a waiting game, only to emerge again with their daggers drawn out against him after today’s abysmal result. 

The two-front battle also conditioned Delia’s campaign. On one hand he had to carry on the anti-corruption battle to keep the Busuttil faction on board, sometimes resorting to drastic claims that Malta was becoming a dictatorship. On the other he also sought out new battle-cries aimed at a more conservative constituency, namely on abortion and foreign workers.  Yet this strategy may have further disoriented the PN by further alienating its socially-liberal wing.  Admittedly the PN is still grappling with its own post-EU membership identity crisis, which sees the party lacking a clear sense of purpose which unites its different categories of voters. The overriding concern of keeping the various factions and sensibilities in the party united may have prevented Delia from reaching out to the political centre-ground, which was vacated to Muscat.   

Yet despite losing, Delia may soldier on. He may try to argue that the party is still shaken by the 2013 and 2017 defeats and that surveys earlier on in the campaign even suggested a bigger vote margin. If he decides to stay on, Delia can now blame the PN’s defeat on those who did not rally behind him. But he still needs to rally the party around him, and a bad result does not help in restoring confidence which is now at the lowest ebb ever. But such arguments are somewhat implausible, simply because under his leadership his party’s decline has not stopped but has continued. 

The irony was that while Muscat was clearly hinting that he will bow out after winning another super-majority, Delia was insisting on staying on, even if humiliated in this contest. And while Labour voters may have been keen on convincing Muscat to stay on by voting for him, some PN voters could not resist the temptation to show Delia the way out by abstaining. 

The problem is that by doing so they have to contend with a stronger Muscat and a lame duck at the helm of their party, possibly till the next general election. 


Fourth national victory for Muscat 

For Muscat this result suggests that not only has he managed to hold together the coalition of voters which elected him in 2013 and which retained him in power in 2017 but that he still managed to extend his majority. While partly this can be attributed to abstention of PN voters, surveys also suggested a small but significant shift from the PN which continued swelling Labour’s ranks. 

One of Muscat’s most remarkable feats was his ability to retain both traditional labour voters and his own pale red constituency composed of floating voters. And he managed to do this despite the ideological transformation of his party which now occupies territory previously occupied by the PN. 

Such a massive success for the Labour leader in the wake of a campaign in which he was presented as the party’s best asset inevitably raises questions on whether the party is ready for a change in leadership. While disarray in the opposition gives Labour breathing space to elect a new leader, Labour voters will be asking how wise it is to change such a successful leader. 

On a personal level, Muscat would be departing after winning two MEP elections and two general elections held between 2008 and 2019, with Labour’s majority increasing from 53% in 2008 to 57% in 2019. This means that he would be departing on a very high personal note. The question worth asking is whether the Opposition’s failure to present a credible alternative is masking Labour’s contradictions and problems. The greatest risk posed by such a scenario is that with such a result, Labour may be tempted to ride roughshod on those expressing concern on issues like governance and the environment. 

Yet Labour’s ability to retain votes suggests that the party has a high level of appreciation for its accomplishments, which cannot be ignored.