[ANALYSIS] Strong-arming Adrian Delia into submission

As rebel MPs cross the Rubicon they face a choice: engage in battle with Delia, or retain a semblance of party unity. Can Therese Comodini Cachia pick up the pieces from the fallout of the nuclear option, JAMES DEBONO asks?

Embattled but stubborn: Adrian Delia
Embattled but stubborn: Adrian Delia

The path of no-return for the Nationalist Party’s rebel backbench, 17 MPs and two MEPs, has been that of launching a coup against a democratically-elected, yet flawed party leader – the risk has been known from the very start. Short of Adrian Delia resigning honourably, dethroning him meant months of chaotic infighting that is bound to alienate the wider electorate. Such a bloodbath kept moderate MPs and party officials loyal to Delia, wary of his antagonists despite lingering doubts on his suitability. They thought Delia’s inevitable fate was defeat at the polls.

Strong-arming Delia

Still, the prospect of further embarrassment from Delia fending off accusations of impropriety at a crucial moment when the PN should be on the offensive, brought about a new impetus for his removal before it was too late. For even as Labour was coming to terms with the industrial-scale corruption characterising the Muscat years, Delia’s name started cropping up in court proceedings and WhatsApp leaks (contents of which he ‘denies’), shifting the balance against him. In a bid to save the party from free-fall under a lame duck, some want to strong-arm him into submission.

Rebel MPs don’t want a split or form a new party, but to get rid of Delia and bring about the election of a new leader. Getting there requires the unthinkable: not just forcing a no-confidence vote, but presenting a challenger – something that so far has always eluded Delia’s opponents, allowing him to persist in a leadership legitimised by his 2017 election and councillors’ reaffirmation in 2019.

But it’s stubbornness that gives Delia his greatest strength, in the past having made it harder for the rebels to press the nuclear button. Now it could well be his undoing: if Delia is hell-bent on taking the party down with him to force a split, that could bring about party insiders and moderates to the side of the rebels. And with just 11 MPs supporting Delia, his defiance in the face of such an untenable position baffles moderates.

Enter the reluctant politician

Forcing Delia out necessitated finding an MP to present to the President as the rebels’ choice of Opposition leader. Faced with the prospect of condemning the party to chaos by staying on, Delia would be pressured to resign and pave the way for a leadership contest that allows the party to move on from its darkest hour. Getting there required someone willing to fill the vacancy of Opposition leader as a stop-gap measure until a new leader is elected, unleashing an unprecedented constitutional crisis, that puts pressure on Delia to resign and end the civil war.

But putting one’s name forward to front one of the most complicated political manoeuvres in Maltese parliamentary history is a great risk, possibly ending up with an Opposition leader who is not party leader.

Surprisingly, it was Therese Comodini Cachia, a former MP, human rights lawyer and University academic who took up the challenge. She half-heartedly resigned her seat in Brussels when elected in 2017, hinting she preferred her European vocation. But it was perhaps her lack of leadership ambition that made her acceptable to MPs, a means to an end that forces out Delia, and gives rebels a purpose in the interim.

For without a leading reference point, the rebel group risks implosion. The reluctance of long-time favourite Claudio Grech to take up the challenge proves the kind of difficult choice Comodini Cachia has made. This time she cannot take up the role reluctantly; circumstances require that she asserts her authority over a group of MPs solely united by the goal of removing Delia.

In politics the role also changes people. If Comodini Cachia can steer the ship home, her standing will grow. If she doesn’t flop, she could become a reassuring and gentler face of Maltese politics, with a grounding in human rights that is coupled by a sober and unpretentious style. It could reconnect the party with middle-of-the-road voters tired of Muscat’s strongman politics and Delia’s poor imitation of the same. For fighting Muscat at his own game might have been the PN’s greatest strategic mistake… or perhaps, the secret yearning of the party’s rank-and-file to have “a leader like Joseph”.

The lure of the strongman

Malta’s presidential drift in politics provided fertile ground for strongmen leaders. With his lack of political depth and experience, Delia galvanised a loyal crowd mainly composed of the PN’s working class and socially conservative base, in the process alienating a seemingly more educated cohort of voters, without whose support the party is destined to electoral oblivion.

Delia’s next move could bank on the latent support in the party’s grassroots. With nothing to lose, Delia would opt for a showdown, knowing that in the last three years he showed his best when defending his turf among party members and councillors. That gunfight would be fought first in the PN’s executive committee, where Delia might have already lost support, and possibly the wider General Council where he still can carry the day. And here Comodini Cachia’s ‘continental’ and detached brand of politics could falter, for Delia knows his populist and assertive style resonates with party councillors.

That makes it imperative for Comodini Cachia to present an alternative style of leadership that addresses the concerns of the party’s working-class supporters.

Without an assertive leader who bridges the party’s divide between working and middle-class constituencies, conservatives and liberals, the PN could end up with a rift that runs deeper than this current split, even with a regional decline in the south and in Gozo.

Party grandee Louis Galea might be articulating a modern and secular vision for the PN’s new statute, but the party simply lacks the leader who can translate this into a folllwing. That person is not Delia, but the alternative truly is a question mark: the rebels now have to prove that they have not put the cart before the horse.