[ANALYSIS] PN rebels’ chessboard move for PN leadership

Is the rebels’ shrewd chess move to pit their own ‘outsider’ to oust Adrian Delia a betrayal of an earlier promise to spoil councillors with the choice of the horse that would race Delia?

The impression given to the PN’s councillors before last week’s vote in which they chose whether members would vote in an open leadership race or just a confidence vote for Adrian Delia, was that they be spoilt for choice between candidates reflecting the different nuances of the PN’s rainbow coalition. It seemed like an opportunity for the PN to display its colours in a debate between political adults discussing a way forward for a party, which is still rediscovering what it stands for. And yet…

A race to inspire

A race between candidates like Roberta Metsola, Therese Comodini Cachia, Mark Anthony Sammut, Alex Perici Calascione and Adrian Delia was in itself an enticing prospect that could have generated enthusiasm not just within the party, but also in the nation. It would have sent a message to Malta that the opposition is alive and brimming with ideas at a time when the government is showing the first signs of fatigue under the weight of Robert Abela’s poor judgement on COVID-19 transmission.

It could have given the opportunity of seeing lesser-known candidates prove their acumen in an open race, gaining name recognition and possibly defying predictions and polls. It also ensured female candidates would have at least had a chance. Limiting the choice to two men as was Labour’s race in January, is a lost opportunity for gender equality.

Operation wet blanket

To win the first round against Delia, the rebels conjured a scenario to give party councillors the impression that they would be choosing the two candidates facing each other in the final run-off.

But with 44% of councillors supporting Delia’s one-horse race proposal it clearly emerged that the embattled PN leader would surely make it to the second round, while a crowded and fragmented field of rebels would end up jostling for second place. The risk was not just that Delia would emerge from the first round as the frontrunner – a major psychological boost – but also that the candidate coming in second place would not be the one with the best chance of beating Delia. In such a crowded field the risk was that a candidate surpassing another by a couple of votes could well have made it to the second round.

Moreover, an open debate between candidates opposing Delia on the party’s vision may have been seen as premature in a party already riven by divisions. It could well have exposed more rifts, perpetuating the perception that the PN is a divided party.

So the rebels have deduced a logical conclusion: that in order to beat Delia they had to choose which candidate had the best chance of beating Delia. Instead of leaving this to the whims of party councillors, they relied on internal polls showing which candidate stood the best chance of beating Delia. Curiously, that also meant opting for an outsider, who like Delia will take on the party leadership without having previously worked in its structures. It meant opting for the candidate who seemed most palatable for the Delia base.

One may say that they have acted logically and clinically in line with their objective of ridding the party of a lame duck heading towards electoral Armageddon. It had to be Bernard Grech, an outsider with no baggage in past PN administrations, and one who appeals to conservatives due to his past militancy against divorce, and who had the added advantage of not being shunned by the Daphne crowd whose vigils he addressed.

The return of the clique?

Yet such impeccable logic may betray the kind of ruthlessness which voters may find off-putting, a move which risks being depicted as the Byzantine manoeuvring of an invisible clique by both Delia and the Labour media. Councillors who have been deprived of having a say in shortlisting the candidates may feel tricked about being given the impression of voting in an open race. The choice may even dampen the enthusiasm of those who do not identify with Bernard Grech and who voted for a race because they had other candidates in mind. The reluctance of some candidates to withdraw from the race also suggests that an invisible hand was running the show. People are bound to ask: whose hand was it?

Delia has already capitalised on this. “Isn’t this an open contest? And yet, we have the few trying to choose one candidate,” he said when interviewed on TVM’s Xtra, accusing them of paying short shrift to democracy and describing their actions as a secretive Vatican conclave.

Grech’s appointment with destiny

It is now up to Bernard Grech to dispel this impression. One major advantage is that he fits the profile of what is expected of a PN leader in the Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi mould. Married with children (the quintessential perception of stability) and a rhetorical performance that carries gravitas.

But to dispel the perception that he is a pawn in a chess game, he has to show clearly that he is his own man, that he has a coherent vision and that despite his conservative roots he can lead a coalition of social liberal and conservative voters. His answer to a question on abortion already showed political maturity with Grech skirting a facile rejection of the issue: “We’re talking about principles, and abortion is one such principle that has to be discussed. If people say they ‘want abortion’, you are obliged to discuss it. You don’t just decide, or let others decide for you; however, you are obliged to discuss it – and issue a position on what people think… Back in the day the Church felt it had the key to the truth. Out there, people think it differently: we have to recognise that reality.” On such issues Grech may actually have more room for manoeuvre, simply because the conservative base won’t doubt his intentions.

Grech can also carry on the corruption battle while carrying no baggage of his own, something which prevented Delia from sounding credible on the party’s main battle cry. His strong stance on this issue also gives him greater flexibility in addressing other important social issues, without being accused as Delia was of diverting the party from its main crusade.

Much also depends on Grech’s social vision. For it was the detachment from working class voters which contributed to the PN’s declining fortunes in the less affluent parts of the country. Grech will have to answer questions on how he would address low wages, unaffordable housing and precarious labour. He would also have to juggle between the conflicting interests and views within the PN’s coalition, where the party will struggle to strike a balance between civil society and social justice activists and the support it traditionally received from big business. Grech will also be tested on immigration where the party is split between humanitarian liberals and admirers of Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini.

While Delia can rely on tribal loyalty and the depiction of Grech as a tool of the PN establishment, Grech needs to assemble a coalition spanning across different categories of PN voters, including elderly tribalists who are over-represented among the restricted coterie of party members. But by starting to assemble a winning coalition in his party which spans across ideological and factional divides, Grech would be sending a strong message to the country that he means business and will be giving Labour’s establishment a run for their money. In this way the ‘outsider’ may pit himself as the underdog who can take on Labour, reduce the gap in the next election and place himself in contention to become Prime Minister by 2028.

In short, if Grech fails to excite now and simply wins by default, it is unlikely that he will shine when confronting Labour.

And if Grech fails to shine, Delia may well win the contest. Having always shown his best in defending his embattled leadership, the prospect of a lame duck leader surviving once again, only to drag the party into the abyss, cannot be discounted.

No wonder Labour spin doctors look on this prospect with glee.

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