Six reasons why the PN leadership race is repetitive and predictable

The contest between two middle-aged, bespectacled male lawyers is as stale and predictable as it gets

Whoever wins, it will get more predictable when they face another male lawyer PM, with the odds heavily stacked against the PN
Whoever wins, it will get more predictable when they face another male lawyer PM, with the odds heavily stacked against the PN

The PN race has not even formally started but the ‘debate’ between the middle-aged, bespectacled male lawyers is as stale and predictable as it gets. Whoever wins, it will get more predictable when they face another male lawyer PM, with the odds heavily stacked against the PN. JAMES DEBONO tackles the issues that have emerged from the Grech-Delia interviews

1. Delia keeps milking the immigration issue to score points

Adrian Delia keeps barking on immigration and foreign workers even if it is clear by now that he is exploiting this issue to revive his candidacy.

This approach has characterised Delia’s leadership but it has already failed in winning any traction for his party in MEP elections, where despite the increase in foreign workers, Labour still managed to hold on to their support in constituencies troubled by this issue.

Delia, who himself had advocated a humanitarian approach towards irregular migrants rescued at sea, is bound to disappoint xenophobes and racists. The danger of emphasising this issue is that of legitimising anti-foreigner sentiment while failing to come up with a programme of strengthening communities and in the integration of migrants.

Delia has raised valid points on the risks of ghettoes and the risks posed by cheap labour in some sectors of the labour market, but he fails to present a coherent vision. Grech seems more hesitant on this issue. But the difference is mostly one of emphasis. Just like Delia, he seems bound by respect for respecting the life of stranded migrants while expressing concern on ghettoes; but is not so forthcoming on how integration can be achieved and the economic model revised.

Neither candidate seems to have depth on migration issues. This is one area where the absence of Roberta Metsola and Therese Commodini Cachia from the race is being felt.

2. Abortion has been given greater prominence than social and economic vision

Bernard Grech re-exhumed the abortion issue in the PN by first hinting that he would respect the result of a hypothetical referendum on this issue, but then committing himself to resign if the referendum yields a pro-choice majority. While technically he would still be “respecting the result” by resigning, Grech presented this argument in stages, with his commitment to resign coming after facing a conservative backlash.

On this issue Delia has remained consistent, sticking to an ultra-conservative position while Grech’s balancing act may have backfired, irking liberals and conservatives alike.

But the prominence given to the abortion issue contrasted with the absence of concrete proposals on more immediate issues like wages, housing, land use and economic policy. For while the debate on abortion is still in its infancy with the vast majority remaining opposed to legal abortion services, the PN can only appeal beyond its middle-class constituency by speaking on the daily problems faced by those on low wages paying exorbitant rents.

The absence of issues related to gender equality also speaks volumes on the risk posed by an all-male contest, which flies in the face of greater pluralism and diversity in Maltese society.

3. Both candidates ended up answering questions on their tax problems rather than on the country’s economy

Grech has clearly underestimated the impact of his own tax problems in a race partly prompted by concern on Delia’s finances. The reality is that while Grech’s and Delia’s tax problems are common among self-employed professionals, this inevitably contrasts with platitudes on the respect for the common good and good governance.

In Grech’s case the fall-out is greater for the simple reason that his candidacy raised expectations for a PN leader who can take on Labour’s corruption without being exposed to attack because of personal baggage.

Instead Grech found himself answering questions on a tax bill, which was only settled after he decided to contest for the leadership. So instead of listening to how the two candidates intend to boost the country’s finances, voters are listening to how the two candidates have sorted out their own personal finances.

4. Grech is already making excuses for electoral defeat

During one of the TV interviews Grech suggested that if Labour goes for an early election in the next few months, he would not be in a position to do much to restore his party’s fortunes. Understandably Grech has to defend his position and raising expectations of a miracle turnaround would backfire badly on him. For if defeated by a big margin, Grech’s position may once again be internally questioned, especially by those elements in his party who reluctantly supported him but would have preferred other candidates.

Yet Grech may have found a better choice of words to better anticipate Labour’s moves. He may well play the underdog card, seeking to generate enthusiasm in a David and Goliath contest. Grech would be right in saying that the odds are stacked against the PN, but he can use this to instil a sense of hope, which is essential to generate the enthusiasm of party volunteers. In this sense Grech can’t afford to say that the next election is unwinnable if he wants to achieve a more realistic goal of narrowing the gap.

5. Delia’s anti-establishment rants look tired

Delia still pits his new way against an entrenched party establishment. So is Delia in the wrong party? After all the connections of the party to professional and business elites go far back into the party’s history and include the glorious time when the party dominated the political landscape under the leadership of Eddie Fenech Adami.

Indeed, Delia’s anti-establishment ‘insurgency’ never questions this aspect of the party’s history and seems more directed at a segment of tertiary-educated voters who distrust him, and a coterie of MPs who remained antagonistic towards him.

He ignores the reality that only a minority in the party’s own parliamentary group supports him. He has been repeatedly outvoted in internal votes in party structures and only holds on because members elected him two years ago. While Delia is right in feeling singled out for sins, which are common across the factional divide in his party, his stance suggests an aversion to structures and an inability to win over the party’s middle ground.

Rather than winning more MPs and party officials over, Delia found himself losing the support of key allies in both the party and the parliamentary group.

6. Labour is more afraid of Grech

Although the Labour Party has deemed both Delia and Grech as not being worthy of constitutional office because of their tax problems, the party’s media has been more focused on questioning Grech, while pandering to the anger of Delia’s anti-elitist supporters, possibly considering the latter either as potential abstainers in a forthcoming election, or possible defectors.

Labour may well consider Grech to be the most likely winner and the one with the best chance of reuniting and giving a sense of purpose to the Opposition. What Labour fears most is not Grech winning the next election, as this remains very unlikely, but Grech gaining traction by a poll rebound after reuniting PN voters.

This rebound is the precondition for any gains Grech can make among floaters and middle of the road voters. If Grech keeps this traction he could be in a position to narrow the gap and emerge as a possible challenger for government, not in the next election but in the one after.

Labour knows that short of a miracle turnaround, Delia is not even in a position to get to that stage. So the next best scenario for Labour is a weakened Grech who is unable to bridge the divide with the Delia faction.

Still, Grech was wrong on blaming stories related to his self-inflicted tax problem on Labour’s fear of him becoming leader.

This curveball was definitively not of Labour’s making. And the shadow cast on Grech has definitely weakened his appeal among a cohort of voters who were warming up to a PN leader without baggage, but who are now more cynical than ever in a scenario which actually benefits Labour.

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