[ANALYSIS] ‘Bring it on’: why PN leader Bernard Grech has gone into election mode

James Debono gives four reasons why PN leader Bernard Grech wants us to believe that he wants Abela to bring on the election as soon as possible

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

In bullish mode, Opposition leader Bernard Grech on Sunday hit an optimistic note when he signalled he was prepared to go to the polls once Malta exits the pandemic. “We want to exit pandemic so that we can go for an election... I want people to start meeting again, attend parties, go to the disco, sit side by side, embrace each other.”

He has hit two birds with one stone by auguring for an early election triggered by a quick exit from the pandemic. Not only does he dispel a reputation for being a doomsayer, but he sounds optimistic on his own electoral prospects. Then again... does he really want an early election, and why is he trying to convey this impression?

1. He is trying to appear he can call the shots (even though he cannot)

The PN leader has no control over when an election can be held. It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to call the election. So Grech is trying to create the impression that he calls the shots, rather than appear to be a victim of circumstances over which he lacks control.

He has also understood that the Maltese electorate likes strong and decisive party leaders. So Grech is posturing as that kind of strong leader who wants the election done and over with, fully knowing that even with his urgent need of time, he cannot appear pleading for it.

Even though his political future is at stake if he does not narrow the political gap with Labour, Grech simply cannot afford to be seen as weak and afraid of the polls. So his message is to bring it on, hoping perhaps that the pandemic itself will give him more time for him to prepare.

2. It is the virus that will derail any plan... and Grech knows it

Abela can only call an election after the vaccination process starts yielding results. If normality does not set in by the Spring, he would probably not lose the opportunity of presenting a Budget to ensure that measures are in place to prop the recovery.

Therefore, in the knowledge that Abela may yet take his time, Grech is trying to portray the PM as the one who is reluctant on going to the polls. This may not be the case because Abela may actually prefer an election at the earliest possibility, both to solidify his hold in the party and to deny Grech time to consolidate his.

Yet in this case Abela is not master of his destiny as it is the virus or rather the success of the vaccine deployed against it, which will ultimately be in charge.

In fact, Grech is also sending the message that the government’s failure to arrest COVID is the reason why Abela cannot go to the polls as soon as possible.

3. Grech knows Abela’s optimism, even though sometimes misguided, chimes in even with PN voters who want normality

Grech has often come across as a prophet of doom by focusing on the rising death toll and the spread of COVID-19. While it is true that Abela has often downplayed the risks, throughout the crisis he was in synch with voters who are eager to get back to their normal lives, either because they want to make more money or because their lives are too miserable to be endured in isolation.

Although both parties, including Labour, have cohorts of voters who prefer caution to haste, Grech may have realised that his approach may have been putting off more optimistic voters.

To dispel this image a more upbeat Grech is presenting the need for a final sacrifice as a quicker path back to feel good normality and an election.

“Let us do the sacrifices today so that we can beat this pandemic,” Grech said as he hit out at the Prime Minister for ignoring warnings that the contact-tracing system had collapsed.

In doing this, Grech is performing a balancing act between the concerns of those who feel that the government has been too fast in lifting restrictions and those who have had enough.

What Grech is telling them is that one last sacrifice could actually quicken the pace of recovery.

Where Grech disappoints is that he does not indicate what sacrifices he would have made us endure to accelerate the recovery.

4. Grech may not actually want an early election, but talking about it consolidates his leadership. What he wants is to put the country in election mode

Grech cannot escape the reality that he took over a party riven by factional infighting. And he is identified with the faction that removed former leader Adrian Delia, whose antics still test Grech’s ability to keep everyone on board.

Talk of an early election inevitably solidifies his hold on the party and helps him mobilize his troops and quell lingering divisions. For as elections approach, the party is obliged to unite behind its leader. That election could give him carte blanche to transform his party in his own image, such as approaching social conservatives who are less in a position to dictate the agenda on matters like decriminalisation of cannabis.

Yet Grech needs time to find candidates who are able to regenerate the party and widen the pool of talent on which he can rely on. Therefore, while Grech may actually want to convey the impression that he is eager for the polls, in reality he needs more time to assemble his war machine.

Grech knows that his chances of winning are remote, if not impossible. His best bet is to narrow the gap, and use the election as a launch-pad for the regeneration of the opposition to ensure that it would have a fighting chance in the 2027 election. By going in election mode now, Grech risks peaking early; but he cannot afford to do otherwise. For even when it comes to polling, Grech still needs to recover more of his voting base than Abela does.

This is because more former PN voters than Labour voters are undecided or inclined not to vote. To get there Grech needs to spend the next months selling the illusion that he can win, fully knowing that his best shot would be that of narrowing the gap. In addition, while Abela can rely on the power of incumbency to rein in disillusioned Labourites, Grech has nothing more to offer than hope.