Delia’s safety net, the PN’s quandary: is party member support enough?

Adrian Delia still has the safety net of Nationalist Party members to fall on to but is it enough for him to quell dissent and win an election? KURT SANSONE tries to answer the question

Delia still enjoys the support of the membership base that put him there but the numbers are not big enough for him to quash dissent once and for all
Delia still enjoys the support of the membership base that put him there but the numbers are not big enough for him to quash dissent once and for all

Adrian Delia was the first leader to be elected by Nationalist Party members after the statute was amended during his predecessor’s term.

The decision to have the party leader elected by members rather than a restricted cohort of councillors was intended to widen democratic participation.

It also meant that any prospective candidate would find it more difficult to manipulate the voting base, something that was a possibility when the choice was confined to councillors.

Undoubtedly, having a leader elected in this way gives the person wider legitimacy among the party rank and file. But as happens in any system, it provides no guarantee that the leader will enjoy popular support.

MaltaToday's latest survey results show that among the PN tesserati – the voting base that elected him leader – Delia enjoys the support of 56.8%.

The result is an improvement on Delia’s performance when he was elected leader in 2017 but within the Maltese context where party leaders are idolised, it is legitimate to ask whether, after two-and-a-half years, this level of support is good enough.

Big but not big enough

Strong as it may be, the result shows that Delia has attracted very few new converts to his cause from among the rank and file during this period.

More worrying is the third of tesserati who want him to resign, a group that remains stubbornly opposed to Delia.

The overall picture leaves the PN in a quandary.

Delia still enjoys the support of the membership base that put him there but the numbers are not big enough for him to quash dissent once and for all.

At the other end of the spectrum, the resistance to the leader is strong, but not strong enough to stand a chance of pushing him out democratically.

At the same time, Delia remains hugely unpopular among the general electorate and faces strong resistance among PN voters – a category that is much wider than the membership base.

The numbers from the last survey among PN members may give Delia internal comfort but they leave the question about the PN’s electability wide open.

However, the numbers do expose the level of disconnect the PN has with society, particularly people in the south.

The PN's members in the south support Delia
The PN's members in the south support Delia

The southern conundrum

The PN’s support in the first six electoral districts has been reduced to a quarter since 2013, losing several parliamentary seats in the process.

Delia has tried to address this but has, so far, been unsuccessful with national surveys showing that the PN remains strongly out-voted in the south.

On the other hand, Delia’s strongest support within the party comes from members in the south. This is most probably a counter-reaction to the condescending, elitist attitude of his predecessor, Simon Busuttil, which members blame for the party’s dismal showing in the southern districts.

Resistance to Delia is strongest among party members from the 10th District – the traditional blue strongholds of Sliema and St Julian’s.

This regional split, so apparent among party members, is a wound the PN has to heal before it can start making any inroads among the general electorate.

Thumbs down to MPs

The question remains: will the division end if Delia steps down or is ousted? Probably not, and it will greatly depend on the ability of any successor to connect with either side of the PN’s membership base.

But the members’ survey also gives a glimpse of what PN members think of their parliamentary group. Scoring a medium trust rating, as opposed to Delia’s high rating, it is clear that members are unhappy with the shenanigans of some MPs.

Delia was never given a chance by those who did not support him and although the leader’s inadequacy to kick off any meaningful reform over the past two years, or deliver a vision for the future, is a worrying factor in itself, some MPs undermined and ridiculed their leader.

Party members are primarily concerned about the lack of unity – this emerges as their top concern. And they are right. No political party aspiring to win an absolute majority to be able to govern can ever win an election if it stands divided in this way.

The PN has gone through cycles of sabre-rattling by rebel MPs, followed by the status quo
The PN has gone through cycles of sabre-rattling by rebel MPs, followed by the status quo

Déjà vu

After the storm of the past two weeks, it’s back to smiles inside the PN. Delia appears to have climbed down from his combative attitude and rebel MPs have quietened down.

For political observers, this is a déjà vu of what has been happening over the last couple of years – cycles of sabre-rattling followed by the status quo, repeating themselves every few months.

If the détente does hold, the PN will have to concentrate on trying to win the general election. Achieving that goal, however, will require more than just peaceful co-existence and that is where Delia’s electability comes back into play.

The PN could very well find itself in the same situation as the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corby, who had strong internal support but could not connect with the wider electorate.

Healing the internal divisions and coming to grips with these problems will require many PN stalwarts to swallow humble pie. It will take time and that is a luxury the party does not afford.

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