The PN’s new ‘soldiers of steel’ | Francis Zammit Dimech

Veteran MP Francis Zammit Dimech confirms his intention to run for the PN leadership, while hailing the 103,000 ‘suldati tal-azzar’ who stuck by the ailing Nationalist Party through thick and thin

Nationalist MP Francis Zammit Dimech
Nationalist MP Francis Zammit Dimech

The last time I interviewed Francis Zammit Dimech was in the very impressive offices of the Foreign Ministry, ensconced within Palazzo Parisio in Valletta. Today I meet the former minister in the less exotic but almost equally impressive environment of his own legal offices on Republic Street: in itself a small testimonial to how the Nationalist Party as a whole has had to redimension its own self-esteem in the last two weeks.

Still, Francis Zammit Dimech does not seem unduly put out by the change in lifestyle... even though he has enjoyed the remarkable track record of having been emphatically elected to parliament in every election since 1987 (which also means he has been part of the furniture of government for around 22 years).

Add to this that he has now expressed a clear interest in contesting for the party leadership on 4 May, and this makes the former environment (later tourism, later still foreign) minister rather well-placed to discuss the topic of the moment.

What went wrong with the PN? How did it manage to lose such an improbably large swathe of its own supporters in recent years?

"There is more than one answer to that question," he begins (in fact - as has been pointed out elsewhere in the media - there are probably around 36,000), "but I think the main issue was twofold. On one level we lost contact, in various ways, with the people. In parallel, the Labour Party spent four whole years changing its image, and ended up presenting itself as what I like to describe as 'PN version 2.0'..."

In an interesting break with Nationalist tradition, Zammit Dimech doesn't hide his admiration for the success of that particular strategy, nor withhold any credit from its main architect.

"Prime Minister Joseph Muscat knew exactly what he was doing. He successfully created the right environment for all those people who were fed up with the Nationalist administration, or who wanted a change for any of a number of reasons, to vote Labour."

Given that people had clearly resisted the impulse to vote Labour in the past, Zammit Dimech hints that this in itself is proof that the Maltese people had also changed in the meantime... and that the change was not taken on board by the PN administration.

"Muscat correctly identified the problems within his own party's image, and set about transforming the party in a way that made it less intimidating to the type of person who traditionally has always voted PN. He first ditched the old emblem - and he would go on to ditch even the new one, which disappeared quite soon into the campaign. He changed the party rhetoric and imagery... on a more international level, he took ideas from Obama's campaign, and more recently Hollande's in France. Then he targeted individual people to give endorsements..."

Zammit Dimech describes the process as a case of adopting the basic principles of brand management, and applying them to party politics. "Those principles involve first getting people interested in your brand; then enlisting them to become advocates for your product..."

But there was more to it than merely a cosmetic makeover for the newly rechristened 'PL'. Zammit Dimech also admits that mistakes were made in the PN's campaign - the most serious of which involved a major misjudgment of the national mood.

"We made the mistake of assuming that if a government gets the economy right, if it sails the ship of State successfully through troubled waters, then people would see the substance, and would choose on the basis of safety and stability."

And as the PN's former strength consisted in precisely the opposite qualities - i.e., its ability to always deliver a product that the broader electorate traditionally wants - Zammit Dimech concedes that on this occasion, the party failed to live up to its former standards.

"I would however also add that we did deliver where it mattered most ... I think history will stand by us in that regard."

Meanwhile the same questions will be separately addressed by an appointed commission of experts with a specific brief to determine why the PN lost. However, this time around the commission's findings will be kept secret until after the leadership contest on 4 May.

Isn't this slightly unwise? Surely the choice of a new party leader might be influenced by the findings of this commission...

Francis Zammit Dimech however disagrees. "The choice does not need to wait for the outcome of that report. In fact I think it would be mistake... any decision that prolongs the appointment of a new leadership can only the harm the party. And the report will have to take its time..."

Another reason he thinks it's not a good idea is that the report itself will most likely point towards structural issues that would have to be addressed by any leader... regardless of who that leader is, or from which perceived 'faction' he or she might hail.

"I for one would like to know which of the party's structures worked well and which didn't, and why. Were our committees efficient? Did our communications strategy work as it should have? Were we responsive to people's demands? These are the questions the new leadership will have to face, and the report should help in that direction."

Surely, however, some of the reasons do not need any 'special commission' to be uncovered? Zammit Dimech agrees.

"Back in 2008 I had said that we should have analysed why the party lost some 12,000 votes. That, to me, was a bright red alarm light that had been lit, even if we won the election anyway. I think we did not pay enough attention to the warning sign at the time. I would have left maybe a week until after the celebrations died down, and then analysed why so many people had moved away from us..."

Meanwhile I draw to his attention that among the reasons for disillusionment with the Nationalists was the party's failure to deliver on many aspects of its famous promise of 'change' in the 1980s. After 23 years in government, the PN failed to implement a number of important reforms, including party financing, electoral law, national broadcasting and others.

And because we cannot conceivably discuss them all, I limit myself only to broadcasting - an issue which once interested Zammit Dimech, to the extent that he wrote a book about it called The Untruth Game in 1986.

Almost three decades later the broadcasting landscape has changed, but it is far from ideal. I ask Zammit Dimech if he is satisfied with the state of Maltese broadcasting today.

"I don't think it's fair to suggest that things have not improved at all since the days of Xandir Malta.." [here I agree with him, as you would honestly have to go to North Korea to find anything even remotely comparable today]. "But am I satisfied with the improvements? Not really, I think a lot more could have been achieved. We need to do a lot of soul searching in this regard..."

How does he envision any potential restructuring?

"PBS needs to be given a new mission statement to reflect the realities of today. Bear in mind that the media landscape has changed beyond recognition, in other ways than just the introduction of pluralism in the 1990s. Today there is the reality of social media and networking to take into account..."

Here Zammit Dimech appears confident that there is enough good will on all sides to undertake this reform. "One thing we should all agree on is that there is clearly scope for massive improvement. I am however not very impressed with the first decisions of the new government. Broadcasting in Home Affairs? That's a strange choice of ministry, I would have thought."

Agreed... and rather ominous one, too. But assuming that he himself goes on to have a say in at least the PN's policy on broadcasting... what does he intend to achieve?

 "Personally, I would like a strong degree of investigative journalism. In the past few years we already introduced the concept of news evolving according to journalistic criteria..."

Detecting a somewhat puzzled look on my face, Zammit Dimech explains that last observation in slightly more detail: "What I mean is that we no longer operate according to the principle that any news item featuring the Prime Minister - even it's just a visit to a factory or something equally trivial - will automatically be number one priority just because it is the Prime Minister..."

And yet we have just gone through a nine-week electoral campaign, and many PBS news items did in fact feature the prime minister visiting trivial factories here and there... but again he insists it is no longer as blatant as it was in the days of Xandir Malta.

"Still, like I said, it hasn't been perfect. We need to bring up more items of direct concern to the general public. And one thing I feel strongly about is that the national station needs to give more space for people to air their own concerns... anything from illegal development in their neighbourhoods, to road surfaces, parking and so on..."

Here he points towards the Italian model - not so much today's media landscape (which involves very strong private stations that simply do not have any correlative in the local scenario) but that of a few years ago, when RAI was still the mainstay of the Italian broadcasting network.

"The time has come to move away from the local model of having politically-owned television stations, and to explore instead other possibilities - one such model would be the Italian method of aligning different branches of the national stations to particular political viewpoints..."

Reminding me how Rai Uno was traditionally more closely associated with the 'centro destra', Rai Due with the 'centro sinistra' and Rai Tre with the Communists, Zammit Dimech hints that a similar expansion locally might obviate the need for political parties to own their own television stations... something which the parties can ill afford at the moment.

Inevitably this brings us to the next topic of the moment. At the time of our interview, news had not yet broken that the PN had to postpone salary payments for financial difficulty. However, rumour was already rife that the party was - to quote Evarist Bartolo somewhat out of context - "in deep s***".

Now that Francis Zammit Dimech has made his intention to run for the party leadership clear, these problems may one day be his own to solve. I ask him how he imagines the party will claw its way out of what looks to be an insurmountable debt mountain. What would he himself do to turn things around for the PN?

"The first thing that needs to be done is to establish principles of commercial management across the spectrum of the party's interests. The party needs proper management structures in place - but at the same time we have no wish to become a commercial entity..."

Is he suggesting scaling down the party's commercial activities? He nods.

"I've already questioned the need for politically-owned television stations in connection with a national broadcasting policy... but this is something the PN cannot reform on its own. For this we need bipartisan consensus..."

But rescuing the party from imminent bankruptcy may not be the only challenge the new party administration is likely to face.

Partly as a result of the electoral drubbing itself, and partly also as a direct consequence of its own handling of the so-called backbencher 'rebellion', the once monolithic PN looks like it may in danger of simply falling apart at the seams.

Either way, some form of 'reinvention' is now inevitable. So if Zammit Dimech does land himself the top job... what is his own vision for the the 'new PN'?

He replies without any hesitation whatsoever. "The party must remain true to its core values - the values that have made it strong throughout its history - but at the same time we need to conduct an x-ray of Maltese society in 2013.

"We need to do this scientifically, to determine exactly how social trends are evolving. If the PN is to rediscover its roots as a people's party - and don't forget we form part of the wider family of European people's parties, the EPP - we need to understand what the people think, what their aspirations really are... we need to get back in touch with the people."

In what seems to be a popular mantra among PN pundits these days, Zammit Dimech insists that the party has remained true to its own convictions throughout. But how accurate is this interpretation of recent history? He almost audibly groans when I bring up the (admittedly predictable) example of divorce. On that occasion, the PN took up a position against the introduction of this civil right, and soon found itself forced to retract a statement of principle issued just a few months earlier. Was the PN really true to its core values on that occasion?

"It is not entirely correct to say that we took a position against divorce in itself; our position was that, while we recognised up to a point the inevitability of divorce being introduced sooner or later, we argued that it was not the right time to introduce it now. Our point was that introducing divorce would cause more harm than good..."

Moreover Zammit Dimech rejects any narrow interpretation of the party's identity along any specific ideology, or to the exclusion of any particular view.

"We are inspired by Christian values, yes, but what has always made the party strong is that it is open to a multiplicity of different views."

However he acknowledges that the party may have 'forgotten' or 'overlooked' some of the divergent views that had once called the PN home.

"We need to reach out to those people who used to feel at home within the PN, but who for various reasons distanced themselves from the party."

He also seems to have a cunning plan on how to achieve this aim.

"First we shall have to develop an effective communications strategy, and rediscover the skills of communication. By skills I don't just mean getting our ideas across to the people; we also have to listen to the people..."

I put it to him that this sounds a lot like rediscovering the value of 'clientelism'...

"That's not what I meant by 'skills'. Yes, it is true that a lot of people come to us with complaints, and that many times we simply cannot address the cause of the complaint. It takes skill to explain to these people why those demands cannot be met..."

As for the rest, Zammit Dimech explains that there are areas which - for reasons of history, if nothing else... the PN has a natural obligation to address.

"Nationalists expect us to defend a number of issues, including free education, free health services for all... we cannot afford to lose sight of these values."

Lastly, Zammit Dimech reasons that even if the party is currently at a low ebb, it still has much to be proud of and to live up to.

"We lost heavily, but we still represent 103,000 voters." Here he breaks into a sudden laugh.

"They are our version of the 'suldati tal-azzar' - the soldiers of steel who stood by the party through thick and thin. We have a duty towards them as well."

Oh its all about duty and all the bull... Where was the PN's duty during the last 5 years? Ghaddejtu minn fuq kullhadd u injorajtu lill-kullhadd, apparti l-bazuzli. Weggajtu hafna nies li issa qed iharsu lejkhom...u iva....b'certu disprezz.
Jurgen Cachia
Kemm ma jistħix! "Suldati tal-azzar"... għax imsieken kienu ppersegwitati. Bil-Malti ngħidu "wiċċu u s.... ħaġa waħda." Toqgħodlu.
"Back in 2008 I had said that we should have analysed why the party lost some 12,000 votes. That, to me, was a bright red alarm light that had been lit, even if we won the election anyway. I think we did not pay enough attention to the warning sign at the time. I would have left maybe a week until after the celebrations died down, and then analysed why so many people had moved away from us..." Best thing he said in my opinion. But I would like to point out that what happened now didn't happen then because there where many other folk already fed up with PN but they didnt want Alfred Sant.
he either wants to raise morale of those gullible voters who voted PN or else he does not know what he is saying. By using battlecries such as 'suldati tal-azzar!!' you will not win the leadership election. That is already decided in the dark rooms of the PN headquarters. But a semblance of a democratic process will have to be put on for this election!
What FZD said is nonsenese. The suldati tal-azzar are those of Nationalist principles who did not want the PN & the country to be lead by a creme de la creme clique and saw the only option to get rid of the rot was to vote other party or abstain. Imagine the PN won the election in the shameful financial state it is in?? Tal misthija Francis. Remember everybody has mouths to feed, not only RCC & ZV. Clean up from within, from the heart. It won't be easy, but take the first step and admit that the rotten clique ruined it all. And bring back those with REAL Nationalist principles who did not want an unelected leader who was stationed in Brussels on a double (very high) pay.
dr zammit dimech in order to become steel ore has to pass through hell. the 103000 had it so good for 25 years without bothering what was going on to the other half of the population. the soldiers of steel of the sixties had to endure all types of hardships including jail, excommunication, burial outside consecrated grounds transfers at work, exile to far off land to look for jobs...ask your brother dr zammit dimech. because he as a teen used to write in the children's column in il helsien he was interdicted.and above all dr muscat has promised that he will lead a government of all the population and those of the 103000 who feel its their duty to give an honest day's work are welcome. please do not insult the memory of the real men of steel dr zammit dimech.
My Dear Francis,let's say for once that those 103,000 were soldiers of steel,but with no comparison with those 51,000 real soldiers of steel which voted for the Labour Party way back in the 60's. But the thing you are not saying is,that these 103,000 soldiers of stell were betrayed by their Generals.
Kellhom bzonn tal PN 'suldati ta l-azzar'. Tal Labour biss kienu dawn. BTW
Emmanuel Mallia
An old face, with old conservative theoretical ideas !
Igor P. Shuvalov
So after copying slogans, billboards, ecc, now a PN leader hopeful is trying to copy the Labour Party by using the same phrase, for a long time ridiculed by the PN - suldati tal-azzar.
suldatti ta lazzar u kaptani ta chewing gum.ghall pozzijiet biss kienu jinqallaw il generali tal pn
No comparison at all. Il-Pn supporters li ivvotaw lill gonzipn ma kellhomx fuq rashom ix-xabla tal-knisja li jekk jivutaw lil gonzi jmorru l-infern jew jigu midfunha fil-misbla, kif fil-fatt gara. Ghal kuntrarju, il-maggoranza li ivvutaw lil gonzi huma dawk li kienu ilhom jerdaw ghal snin shah minn fuq dahar il-poplu.
When one reads the contributions below one gets the impression that the past 25 years have been hell on earth for our beloved Malta. Perhaps a wee bit of an emotional, subjective and 'totally detached from reality' point of view? The reality is that the country has developed positively in leaps and bounds over the past 25 years, and only sheer ignorance can cloud one's judgment on that. The reality is also that the outgoing government made many inter-personal and communication blunders over the past 5-8 years, despite the clear fact that the country moved forward in general terms, and it is those inter-personal and communication blunders that diminished the dignity of so many citizens and that alienated civil society from the PN. That is why the Party lost the elections so heavily....not because we have been living in hell for the past 25 years.
Now, Francis, will you face the leadership contest confidently ? When you know that most of the 900 councillors were picked by the Lawrence Gonzi clique. And which will be used against you in favour of the preferred you know who. No Francis, the honest truth must always prevail !
Now, Francis, will you face the leadership contest confidently ? When you know that most of the 900 councillors were picked by the Lawrence Gonzi clique. And which will be used against you in favour of the preferred you know who. No Francis, the honest truth must always prevail !
22 years in Parliament, 22 years in the PN Governments which have been the most corrupt, arrogant and discriminatory in the history of this Nation. How many times has the PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami been found guilty of human rights abuses by our Constitutional Courts. And what happened - NOTHING. the "suldati tal-azzar" are those PL supporters who were so highly discriminated against for all these years, not the PN blue-eyed boys who received unmeritorious appointments, promotions, housing allocations, MEPA approvals to destroy our NATURA2000 sites etc. the list is unending. Francis Zammit Dimech should best pack up his bags and leave. Too much damage has already been done to our Nation.
OUT with the old- and IN with the old!
Suldati ta' l-azzar = keep on dreaming ...
Abdullah alhrbi
'We need to do this scientifically, to determine exactly how social trends are evolving' Are you for real??? For crying out loud you had half of the anthropology and sociology academics with a hotline to the stamperija do you mean to say their research never gave you the real picture ????? Try to be a bit more credible won't you? Talk of cognitive dissonance!
Sorry to disappoint the delusional FZD but SULDATI TAL-AZZAR of the 60`s refers to a group of people who voted labour despite being threatened by dying without the holy right ie going to hell. So what has it got to do with the situation with the PN today. God forbid we had more of them otherwise we would still have GonziPN. I declare that the real Suldati Tal-Azzar in the PN were those intelligent and open minded persons who voted labour in the last election and thus rid us of a corrupt and arrogant government.
Zack Depasquale
Suldati tal-Azzar kienu dawk li batew l-Interdett u ndifnu fil-mizbla mill-knisja bl-ghajnuna tal-Partit ta'Zammit Dimech, mhux dawk li belghu il-lixka ta'GonziPN.
il-helmit jonqsu ,ma jisliniex ,xi hadd izghar pls...