We must change, or die | Mark Anthony Sammut

The internecine war within the Nationalist Party is now reaching its endgame: former executive president MARK ANTHONY SAMMUT argues that the time has now come to either change, or perish in the attempt

Along with Bernard Grech, Roberta Metsola, Therese Commodini Cachia and others, your name has often cropped up as a potential contender for the forthcoming PN leadership election. Just this morning, you announced that you will not be contesting. What led to this decision? Was there any pressure on you to withdraw, in the interest of agreeing on a single candidate to replace Adrian Delia?

First of all, my interest started with people mentioning me in surveys and polls. Councillors and party members spoke to me; there were even some MPs who encouraged me. And I believed that I could contribute, in some way, to send the message that the PN is in the process of regenerating itself; and that it could still attract some of the voters of my generation that it once had, but lost along the way.

So of course, I started considering it. I discussed it with people around me; starting with my family, the people who would be most impacted by such a big decision. But also with other people who were being considered as possible contenders. Because after all, this is not just a question of who is going to be party leader. It’s also a question of what vision do we believe the party needs to have: not just for the sake of replacing Adrian Delia; but also for the sake of eventually beating Robert Abela.

And I have to say that, in these discussions, I discovered that all the other contenders are people who really have the party’s best interests at heart. They believe, like I do, that politics is a service. It’s not just a question of personal ambitions.  So I’m really glad to have been able to discuss my vision for the party, and listen to theirs.

As for my decision not to take this step, however: no, there was no kind of pressure on me not to submit my candidature.  I can assure you it was a decision I took myself, on the basis of my own analysis of the situation.

In these discussions you mention, was there any form of negotiation regarding future positions within the party: for instance, who would get to be part of the shadow cabinet, in the event that Bernard Grech wins?

No, we didn’t go into that level. And in any case, those are internal decisions to be taken by the Party itself: it doesn’t depend entirely on the identity of the new party leader.

What I can say is that when I saw – just a few minutes before this interview – that Bernard Grech decided to submit his nomination, I wholeheartedly supported his decision, and I will be giving him my full support. I believe that, in the circumstances, he could be a figure that manages to reunite the various different types of voters that make up the Nationalist Party.

But my support is unconditional: in the sense that I don’t expect anything in return.

You say that Bernard Grech might succeed in reuniting the party; but given the enormity of the chasm that has opened up between the opposing factions… is that even still possible: not just for Bernard Grech himself, but for anyone at all?

It’s going to be a challenge, certainly. And not an easy one, either. At this point, I would have expected Adrian Delia to realise that, after losing the confidence of two-thirds of his parliamentary group, as well as 60% of his executive committee – which, a year and a half ago, returned a unanimous vote of confidence in him – and now, having also lost the support of the General Council… under the circumstances, he should realise that, even if he wins, he is going to have a much bigger challenge to lead the Party than anyone who might replace him.

So for the sake of the Party, I believe Adrian Delia should have taken the responsible decision to not contest.

He has the right to contest, naturally; but politically, I do not think it is in the best interests of the party. Having said this, I still think that Adrian Delia has a place in the Nationalist Party…

Really? Do you envisage Adrian Delia remaining a PN member, even if he loses the leadership election?

Yes: I believe he still has a contribution to make. As an MP, he started a number of important initiatives that I think he should continue: like the fight against the Vitals hospital concession in court, for instance…

This brings us to a small irony. It seems as though Adrian Delia is the only voice within the Opposition to be actually opposing the current government. The majority of the PN parliamentary group, on the other hand, seems to be more focused on opposing Adrian Delia. Isn’t this a problem for the credibility of the anti-Delia faction?

I think that is dictated by the specific circumstances of the moment. Looking back over the past three years, you will find that all of the parliamentary group was involved in scrutinizing the government, and doing its job as a parliamentary opposition.

In fact, one of the criticisms directed at individual MPs – including those who have a reputation for “refusing to work with Delia” - was that they presented more private members bills in parliament than the Opposition could realistically focus on, given its Parliamentary time-limits.

So you can’t really say that the parliamentary group has not been doing its job.

But the present circumstances are what they are; ever since the vote of confidence last month, the focus has shifted onto the party leadership. And to be honest, this was inevitable. Before we reach a stage where the Nationalist Party is once again truly reunited, and fully healed from its present wounds… it is useless to talk about presenting ourselves as a credible alternative government.

Delia’s supporters would argue, however, that these ‘wounds’ you refer to were actually inflicted by the so-called ‘rebels’ who refused to ever accept Adrian Delia as the legitimately elected party leader. Don’t they have a point? 

First of all, I don’t really agree with the term ‘rebels’; or that the 19 MPs who have lost confidence in Adrian Delia constitute some kind of ‘rebel faction’. If there were two or three MPs, perhaps you could call it a rebel faction. But when you have two-thirds of the parliamentary group, and a majority of both the Executive Committee and the General Council… that’s not a ‘rebellion’; that’s actually the Party itself deciding to go for a new leadership election.  At this point, I would say that the real ‘rebels’ are those who are still opposing the change that the Party, through its three highest organs, is asking for.

That’s an interesting point, because the issue at stake here is ultimately a question of who really ‘owns’ the Nationalist Party.  The anti-Delia faction has been accused of harbouring a sense of ‘entitlement’ over the party… it is in fact often described as ‘the party establishment’; and Delia himself was arguably elected to reclaim the party from a ‘clique’ that had usurped it.  Isn’t there some truth to this?

Let’s start by acknowledging a few facts. I myself acknowledge that, from the moment Adrian Delia became PN leader in 2017, there were MPs who were either sceptical or unconvinced. But this happens after every leadership contest. The first challenge of any newly elected party leader is always to convince the rest of the party that they can also be part of the team.

Adrian Delia’s misfortune, however – or should I say, his shortcoming – is that over time, rather than trying to win over his detractors within the party, he chose to exclude them…

And yet, in his latest Cabinet reshuffle Adœœrian Delia gave important posts to even his most outspoken critics: such as Jason Azzopardi, who was made Shadow Justice Minister…

Yes, that is true. But I think that there were people who could have been more involved in the project; and who expected some sort of protection from attacks, on social media, by party members who were close to the leader. I would have expected the party leader to at least try and calm the situation down, with a view to bringing everyone in the fold. After all, a party leader has to act a little like a ‘father-figure’: he shouldn’t be rousing his own supporters against other members of the same party…

But to come back to your question about the so-called ‘clique’ or ‘establishment’: these were key phrases the Labour propaganda machine used to use to describe the Nationalist Party; and unfortunately, Adrian Delia made them a key theme of his campaign. They are no longer words used by Labour to denigrate the PN; they are now words used by the PN, against the PN.

That, too, made it very difficult for Adrian Delia to have any prospect of rapprochement with other members of the party.

But the strange thing is that, if you look at the individuals who make up the 19 MPs who have lost confidence in him… most of them are actually in their first legislature in parliament. The vast majority have only been MPs since 2013; they have never been part of any former Nationalist administration of government.

By way of contrast, the people have been longest in Parliament – some of them going back not just to the days of Lawrence Gonzi, but even of Eddie Fenech Adami – are part of the 10 MPs who still support Adrian Delia.

I do not mean that they do not still have a valid input to give, but it is highly ironic that the MPs who have lost confidence in Delia are described as ‘the party establishment’… or even as a ‘clique’. You cannot describe two-thirds of the parliamentary group, and 60% of the executive, and a majority of the general council, as a ‘clique’.

However you describe the situation, it remains a fact that the Nationalist Party appears to be irremediably divided… and the chances are that it will remain divided, even if Delia is successfully replaced. So how would changing the leader, as an end in itself, resolve the problem?

The problem today is that, as repeatedly shown by polls and surveys – and especially by the trust ratings of the party leader - we are clearly not getting anywhere.

Last year, we lost the local council elections by 47,000 votes. Surveys have since shown that we have continued to lose support... even after the events of last November, when the Muscat administration collapsed in a series of corruption scandals; even when the Office of the Prime Minister was practically implicated in the murder of a journalist.

Despite all this, the Nationalist Party failed to regain even a single percentage point. So the results are what they are: we know that, without making this change, we will end up going into an election asking ourselves whether we will lose by 40, 50, 60 or 70,000 votes.

We can’t allow that to happen. A party exists to win elections. That is the only way it can implement its policies. So if you know that, with the current set-up, you have no chance of even starting to compete… you have to change.

But would a change in leader, on its own, be enough to turn the situation around for the PN? And do you really think that Bernard Grech has what it takes to succeed?

I believe that, at the moment, Bernard Grech is the only candidate with any real prospect of bringing the party back together: not just by re-uniting the members of the General Council, who are now divided; nor just the tesserati, who mightalso be split; but by bringing back the 135,000 voters who voted PN at the last election… and, more importantly, the 160,000 voters we would need to win the next election.

I believe that Bernard Grech can do this; but he can’t do it alone.

He needs a team around him, who can attract different types of voters – even those who might not be much attuned to him, at the moment.  It won’t be easy, naturally; but if he builds up the right team… yes, I do believe he can succeed.