The calm after the storm | Mario de Marco

Outgoing PN deputy leader Mario De Marco analyses the Nationalist Party’s defeat in last week’s elections, and calls for a ‘calm discussion’ on strengthening the country’s institutions

PN deputy leader Mario de Marco addresses a PN mass meeting in Gozo. Photo: James Bianchi
PN deputy leader Mario de Marco addresses a PN mass meeting in Gozo. Photo: James Bianchi

The 2017 election result came as a surprise to many: not so much because of Labour’s victory (which had been predicted by all polls)... but because of the sheer extent of the PL’s majority. Yet before the vote was taken, the Nationalist Party seemed confident of a much better result. What do you think caused this mismatch between expectation and reality?

The idea of winning this election was always deemed to be extremely difficult, for the obvious reason that we were trying to go against the natural political cycle in Malta. Historically and traditionally, a government usually goes on to win its second term. Moreover, in this particular case, the PL had won the 2013 election by more than 35,000 votes. It was always going to be a long shot. Having said that, in the weeks leading up to this election there was definitely an optimistic feeling on the ground. A growing support seemed to be coming back to the PN. 

To give a few examples: our political activities were very well attended – be it the general discussion activities held in various localities; and even more so, the weekly mass meetings. We saw that the numbers at, for argument’s sake, our Zebbug, Zabbar Balzan and Sliema mass meetings seemed to be back at 1987 levels. At our last meeting at the Granaries, we saw that historical square packed as nearly never before. Undoubtedly the feeling on the ground was one of a growing wave of support... 

Isn’t that a dangerous indication to go on, however?

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With hindsight, certainly. [laughs] But even without hindsight: yes, it is true that mass meetings should never be taken as an electoral barometer. Nonetheless, they are indicators. And there were others. In terms of party volunteers: again, there was an extremely large number of people coming to offer their support. House visits by candidates were also reporting back a sense of enthusiasm for the party. However, this has to be placed within the context of surveys which were consistently showing the Labour Party ahead by around three or four percentage points. This advantage never wavered.

But there was also a big black hole in all surveys: between 20 and 25%, sometimes going up to 30%, were ‘undecided’ or ‘undeclared’ voters. With such a high percentage of unknowns – much higher than usually recorded before an election – that created a question mark which could have thrown the election result either way.

Separately, we were also seeing public figures who had supported the PL in 2013, but were now switching their affiliation back to the PN. So when you combine these various factors, and add the fact that the atmosphere of this campaign was very different to 2013 – when there was an almost palpable sense of defeatism – suddenly there was a feeling of hope within the party. What had been deemed ‘impossible’ until a few months ago, now seemed to be actually possible. And as the days rolled on, this sense of hope did not diminish. It actually grew, also thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the supporters...

All this must have made the result that much more of a shock...

Obviously, yes. When those sample votes were being counted, the reality sank in that... no, this is not going to go our way. In fact, Labour’s majority remained at roughly 2013 proportions... which probably also reflected the fact that the PN carried on haemorrhaging votes even after the last election. Very often, we take election results as a base-line; we tend to assume that a party stops losing votes on the day of the election. Probably, however, the reality is that a party that loses government and goes into opposition, continues losing votes even after the election....

Could the power of incumbency have something to do with that?

Certainly, the power of incumbency facilitates governments. Historically, if you look at the results of ’92 post ’87; or ’76 post ’71... the government which won its second electoral term traditionally does so with an even larger majority. But [he shrugs] what does all this really mean, however? That we should sit back and simply give up? That our political message has become irrelevant..?

Speaking of the political message: the Nationalist Party placed enormous emphasis in this election on corruption allegations, the Panama Papers, and so on. Could it be that, in so doing, it also neglected basic electoral realities that the PN normally takes for granted?

I wouldn’t say we ignored realities, no. The issue of good governance, for instance, was a reality on the ground. It had become a growing concern to large segments of the population. If you look at the surveys: before, corruption was a concern only for a small minority. Suddenly, it became – if I dare say so – the largest concern of them all. It doesn’t mean it was a concern for the absolute majority of the population; but it was definitely higher in the polls than ever before. Coupled with this was a growing distrust as to the way our institutions were dealing with the stories of corruption, which were cropping up altogether too frequently. This brought a number of questions into play. Were the institutions that we always had faith in, and which had served us well in the past, independent and secure enough to carry out the task of independent investigation, that they are entrusted to do by law? Our main message was not simply about ‘corruption’. It went beyond the individual allegations themselves; it went into the general principle of good governance. The need to overhaul our institutions, so that whoever is in government – I stress, whoever: be it Labour, Nationalist or anyone else in future – will face all the necessary checks and balances of a healthy democracy. We need to ensure once and for all that our institutions are truly independent, and have all the necessary authority at law, as well as the right resources, to carry out their functions. We need to radically rethink their structures, to ensure that our national institutions do not respond only to the executive of the day... on the contrary, to make sure they are there to keep the executive in check.

Isn’t this ironic, however? The PN was after all in government for a very long time, and had plenty of opportunity to conduct those reforms in its day. How could the electorate trust it to do so precisely now, when it had neglected those very issues before?

It is true we were in power for a long time – the question is perfectly legitimate – but to be fair, the PN created a number of authorities which were meant to take away certain powers of the executive. The planning authority, for instance, which was designed to remove power from the executive when it came to granting [development] permits; the MFSA, the FIAU... a lot of the institutions that exist today were created by past Nationalist governments. However, I think it is evident that maybe we did not do enough to ensure that these authorities were not just ‘authorities’ in name; but also in spirit.

Unfortunately, the way the law stands, the people in charge of these authorities are appointed directly by the government of the day. The people themselves may be well-meaning, but the system is by nature open to abuse. In the Police Force, for instance, we had a sad situation whereby there were five different Police Commissioners in the span of four years. What sense of continuity does this create within the Force? What confidence can the average citizen have, that the Police Force is there, not to serve the government of the day, but the general public? So I think we need to have a radical discussion – hopefully less politicised, now that the election is over – as to what constitutional reforms we need to undertake, if we truly want to be a modern, democratic, European country... to have more checks and balances on the executive – I repeat, whoever that executive may be. And I think that, if Joseph Muscat really wants to use his second term well, and if he really means what he says, that he ‘wants to unite the people’... he now has the opportunity to do so. He had the same opportunity in 2013, and I regret to say that he did not use it.

But was that really the message that came out in the PN’s campaign? Simon Busuttil kept telling us of all the people he would remove from office if elected... but not how he would reform the institutions. Do you think the PN came across as too destructive?

I think we may have ‘individualised’ the issues too much. The problem goes beyond the individuals in the role. We can’t see it as a five-year problem: I think that today, there is an opportunity for both the opposition and the government, and all other interested parties – even more importantly, in my opinion, civil society – to come together and confront this challenge head-on. Let’s sit down calmly, now that the dust has settled, to see what we need to address in the existing institutions, so that they may serve us better in the present and future. Until recently, there was talk of Constitutional reform. Unfortunately, nothing came out of that. Now, I think we need to have a mature discussion as to what, if anything, needs to be changed; and how to bring about that change. These are things you need to do at the beginning of a legislature. So here we are, starting afresh... let’s all start with good will, and get the discussion going.

Yet the atmosphere of the campaign was very hostile, even by normal Maltese electoral standards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the relationship between the party leaders so strained. Doesn’t that make it very difficult to achieve the sort of ‘serenity’ required for that kind of discussion?

There are very few campaigns that spring to mind [laughs] where the atmosphere can be described as ‘friendly’. Regrettably, we live in a country where the political divide is too acute, and the political sentiments and temperature rise too high in our elections. I am sure it is everyone’s wish – certainly it is mine – that we can conduct elections in a calmer way. But the reality is that this country still needs to come to terms with its political divide; and I think it still needs to heal its political wounds on either side...

This raises a small contradiction. In 2013, the PN’s electoral report (authored by people who went on to become part of the executive) urged the party to distance itself from ‘negative social media sites and blogs’. The reference was very clear. Yet in this election, the PN relied extensively on allegations made by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog. Why did the PN disregard the advice of that report?

The reality is that a number of allegations went beyond what was reported by Ms Caruana Galizia. You cannot claim that the Panama Papers scandal was just an allegation on a blog...

No, but Egrant was...

Was it? I’d say it was more than that. There was also a whistleblower. The individual who made the allegations was not a figment of the imagination; she existed, and she put forward her claim before the inquiring magistrate... which inquiry is still ongoing. Having said that, the PN has its own agenda; Daphne has hers, and others have their own. The fact that, at times, these agendas may run on parallel lines, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are common to all parties. The PN has, and must always have, its own agenda irrespective of any individual: whoever that may be...

But it didn’t seem that way before the election. Take away those allegations, and there wouldn’t have been much left of the PN’s campaign. Do you think it was a mistake to rely so heavily on a single set of allegations, especially considering that some were unproven?

There was more to the PN’s campaign than the corruption allegations. The PN stood for the message of good governance; the independence of the institutions... messages which, to be fair, the independent media were relaying, too. Many independent journalists, including in MaltaToday, had the same agenda... I don’t think it was dictated to them by any individual. I think it was more a case that their agenda ran parallel to that of Forza Nazzjonali, because their concerns and ours were the same. When you look at the likes of Michael Briguglio, a former AD chairman, publicly giving his support to FN... expressing grave concern with the lack of good governance, and the failure of our institutions... I don’t think Briguglio, or any of the people arguing the same way, was simply following the lead of a blog. We were all expressing common concerns. This is the way I think we should see it.

Coming to the aftermath: Simon Busuttil and the entire PN executive (yourself included) have resigned, paving the way for new leadership. But a petition is now circulating for him to reconsider. Should Simon Busuttil reconsider... and does that mean that all the executive may do likewise?

Let me start by saying that Simon Busuttil did an extremely good job in extremely difficult circumstances. He has successfully re-organised the party; he has put the PN on a more solid financial footing; and I think – if you look also at the wave of sentiment coming through during the campaign – he has also re-energised the party. He managed to create hope, where there was little hope before...


But wasn’t it an illusion of hope?

It is true that the result was not the one that any of us hoped for... which is why Simon, and the whole party leadership/administration, accepted the responsibility and resigned. In other words: yes, we recognise our failure. We recognise the fact that, not only did we did not win, but the difference between the two parties remains effectively what it was. That is why we resigned, and said we would not re-contest our posts...

This leaves the question of who the next leader should be. Or at least, what type of person. What, in your opinion, are the qualities that the Nationalist Party should be looking for in its choice of leader? 

I think the most important quality, for any leader of any party, is that he or she must be first and foremost a bridge-builder: a person who can reach out to different elements within the party; and even more so, to different elements and interest groups that exist within Maltese society. Within the party, as you know, there is a conservative dimension... but also a strong liberal element. These often come together when you have a cause within the country that goes beyond partisan concerns. At other times, however, there is tension between them. I think Simon managed to effectively balance those two dimensions. But it’s never an easy task. 

On a broader level, any effective leader must also be a person that can reach out to the Maltese population, irrespective of political creed. Because the reality is also that today, elections are no longer won or lost by your own party supporters... but by the way you reach out to that ever-growing middle-ground of people who have no political affiliation whatsoever. They probably never had any political affiliation; they simply vote for whom they deem to be... in their own best interests, yes; but also, undeniably, in the best interests of the country. That is an important consideration. 

Secondly, we need a leader who inspires people, and whom people look up to. A motivator, and a person who can represent the nation’s aspirations. Lastly, the new leader must also be someone capable of empowering the party grass-roots. At the end of the day, these are the people who drive the party forward.