Reimagining the PN: How can it become great again?

James Debono profiled different PN voters and how the PN could reinvent itself and keep its different groups of voters happy

The PN’s vote base has been shrinking since 2004 when the party received a drubbing in the first MEP elections back then.

But despite the implosion, the party has not lost its diversity. For while the PN’s total numbers have shrunk, the party still remains a coalition of social liberals, conservatives, upper middle-class voters, working class voters, tribalists and reformists.

This unlikely combination is an inheritance of Eddie Fenech Adami’s successful strategy which weaponised strong and unifying battle-cries: democracy in the 1980s and Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, to hold together different groups of voters.

This diversity has not vanished in the PN cohort. But the various types of PN voters now find themselves swimming in a smaller and murkier pool. Deprived of a battle-cry, which keeps them happy together, they cringe at each other’s past and present antics.

A profile of different PN voters

The educated liberal professional
A young professional by occupation and politically moderate, she is appalled by the industrial scale of Labour’s corruption and also dislikes Adrian Delia for a perceived lack of depth, having had doubts on his integrity ever since Daphne Caruana Galizia exposed his Soho connections. Is concerned by over-development and leans towards a more socially liberal outlook on most but not all issues, keeping an open mind even on abortion with which she largely disagrees. Would never vote for an ultra-conservative party, won’t mind paying less taxes but would also like better public services.

The Edwin Vassallo fan club He owns a small shop, is proudly conservative, tribalist and viscerally hates anything Labour. Would support any PN leader and is appalled by the disloyalty of rebel MPs towards Delia. Identifies with Edwin Vassallo and equates supporting choice in abortion with murder. Never identified with Caruana Galizia except when she lashed out at Labour ministers. He was very angry after her murder, but was offended when Delia became a target of protestors. Would not vote for the far-right but feels some affinity with their aversion to immigration. Would never accept the PN becoming a liberal party and thinks the party should stand for good old family values.

The enlightened conservative Middle-aged and university-educated, she had voted against the introduction of divorce in the 2012 referendum. She has now reluctantly accepted the permanence of social changes enacted in past years, including gay marriage, but fears more change especially on abortion. She feels empathic towards migrants stranded at sea but has some concerns on migrant influx on security and the infrastructure and would like to see more police on the beat. Would also like to see better enforcement on construction sites and was shocked by house collapses. She is appalled by current squabbles in the party and was willing to give Delia a chance. But now thinks the party would be better off if Delia resigns to give the party a fresh chance.

The beneficiary of past favours He owes a lot to a former PN minister who found him a job in a newly set-up authority. He likes to relax in his brothers’ countryside abode, built illegally in the 1990s and only ‘sanctioned’ under Labour a few years ago. His brother always complains that under Lawrence Gonzi, the Nationalists became cut off from the people and his reward for past services to the party was being served with an enforcement order. While his brother now happily votes Labour, he still owes the party too much to abandon it its darkest hour. But he is always keen in reminding prospective candidates who visit him on the eve of elections that the PN will only win again if it starts taking care of its own. Initially he found Delia charming and a good adversary for Muscat. But he now fears that with him as leader his party will never win power and will never help him in the same way it did in the past.

The troubled business-owner As a past Nationalist voter he reluctantly admits benefiting from increased consumption and spending in the past seven years. He has also invested in property benefiting from relaxed planning rules thanks to which he demolished an old house (keeping its façade) and adding four new floors on top. Is worried that a change in government could be unsettling and doubts competence of present day PN in economic matters. He is also angry at corruption and suspects that goal-posts are constantly being moved to accommodate the chosen few. He cringes at Labour’s antics but would not risk having Adrian Delia as PM, fearing instability. Neither was he a fan of Busuttil and although he never admits it in public, had voted Labour in 2017 because of the “economy”. He has come to regret this but still wonders whether his business will continue to prosper if there is a change in government.

The Daphne shrine warrior He lived through the tragic 1980s and sincerely believes that Labour always makes a mess whenever elected in government. In the past he had served in the secretariat of a Nationalist minister and was unwavering in his loyalty when the PN was in government, always arguing that Labour was so worse when in power. Now he feels vindicated again. It pains him to see Labour occupying positions of power, considering them as too flawed in character to bear such responsibilities. Would like the PN to lead protests until the government is toppled but detests Delia, whom he considers a Trojan horse planted by Labour, unworthy of leading the party. He would abstain if Delia remains leader.

The civil society rebel Young, educated in the humanities and rebellious, she had her political baptism of fire during civil society protests in December. Originally was not a fan of Daphne Caruana Galizia but now considers her a hero, a victim of what increasingly looks to her like as a mafia-state murder. Stands opposed to Gozo tunnel and mega-projects and is viscerally anti-racist. Agrees with Graffitti on most issues and supports all their crowdfunding initiatives. Never identified with Nationalist Party before but now would vote for anything with a semblance of decency to ensure a change of government. But Delia simply does not inspire her.


Different models the PN may follow

A centrist moderate party

Appeals to educated liberals and enlightened conservatives

A successful template for a modern centrist party would be building an identity based on clear rules guaranteeing fairness and respect in every aspect of life. This could translate the party’s anti-corruption stance in to one which is more in synch with everyday problems faced by citizens. This could be reflected in a wide range of policies ranging from the way permits are awarded, to police protection for victims of domestic violence. One risk of this is that of alienating a vast segment of the electorate, which still regards political parties as sources of patronage.

The PN can distinguish itself from the more bullish style adopted by Labour leaders, by opting for a ‘bridge builder’ as leader who is able to appeal to the sensibilities of moderates in both liberal and conservative camps. A programme based on fair rules may also appeal to businessmen who resent favouritism, even if they may have different expectations when their party is elected to power. The election of an assertive but reassuring woman leader similar to Germany’s Angela Merkel whose party is able to govern with the Social Democrats on a national level, and in various regions with the Greens, could signal this change. Both Therese Comodini Cachia and Roberta Metsola (left) may fit the profile required for leading a modern centrist party.

A conservative populist party

Appeals to the Edwin Vassallo fan, beneficiary of past favours

Here the role model would be the Polish Law and Justice party: upholding tradition, lashing against social liberalism and immigration alike while advocating social policies rewarding traditional families. In this way the PN may try to drive a wedge in Labour’s own conservative wing. This may also be coupled by a strong emphasis on tribal identity which may be appealing to voters seeking a greater sense of belonging in the party. But the greatest risk of such a turn would be the complete estrangement not just of the cohort of socially liberal voters but also Christian democratic voters who empathise with migrants. In short, instead of broadening its coalition, the PN would end up further restricting its appeal in its bid to define a strong but flawed identity.

A conservative-lite party

Appeals to enlightened conservatives, the Edwin Vassallo fan base and a segment of Daphne shrine warriors

The party may retain its conservative appeal without threatening already established civil rights while embarking on a more ambitious social and economic policy which widen its appeal to other constituencies. One would expect such a party to be more vocal against abortion and cannabis legalisation but also to emphasise urban regeneration programmes and the ‘big society’ model in welfare. Prospective leaders like Claudio Grech may also address concerns on immigration by sounding more hawkish without overtly pandering to racist sentiments. Bernard Grech, an anti-divorce campaigner in 2012 who now seems bent on reaching out beyond this restricted constituency, may also take the party in such a direction. He is also respected among followers of Daphne Caruana Galizia, having spoken in one of the vigils held last June. One international reference for the PN could be the Austrian Christian Democrats who, led by Sebastian Kurz, became more hawkish on immigration while becoming very keen on ecological reconversion of the economy, after dropping an alliance with the far-right in favour of one with the Greens.

A pro-business low-tax party

Appeals to the troubled business owners

One possible option would be for the party to renew its appeal among small and medium businesses by reaffirming the party’s historical commitment to tax cuts, as had been the case both when Fenech Adami was elected in 1987 and under Gonzi on the eve of the 2008 election. Still cutting tax revenue further will most likely undermine investment in public services, which may be vital for a Green New Deal. Instead the party may opt for a carrot-and-stick approach, promising generous incentives to ecological investments and to businesses who pay a living wage. While a lurch to regressive taxation is likely to further restrict the party’s appeal, the party may present proposals that reconcile the different aspirations of different social groups and classes. But the party still lacks a strong personality with credentials in finance and economics, who can either lead it or strengthen the appeal of the new leader as Edward Scicluna did to Muscat.

The civil society party

Appeals to civil society rebel, educated liberal and a segment of Daphne shrine warriors

Just as Labour under Joseph Muscat moved to the centre-right to outflank the PN, the PN may re-invent itself as a centrist party, which looks towards the left. In this way it could appeal to a wide coalition of voters, retaining its traditional voters especially among enlightened conservatives who are cautious but not averse to change, while opening up to the various civil society movements campaigning for environmental protection, good governance, gender equality and social justice. Young Gudja councillor Mark Anthony Sammut, an engineer by profession, has gained respect among activists hailing from various groups, which participated in the December protests and may be best placed to open up the party to a new generation of civil society activists. But this is bound to result in tensions and contradictions as the party struggles to present a platform which is appealing to a broad range of voters and which it can implement if elected to power. As a traditionally centre-right party the PN also has to appeal to businesspeople and conservatives, and even civil society itself includes different nuances. Moreover, while civil society is very visible in the media, it may be detached from the concerns of voters with everyday life priorities.