A November election? Five questions facing Bernard Grech in 2021

Amid persistent rumours of a November election, Bernard Grech knows his future is at stake if he fails to substantially reduce the gap with Labour. With so little time left, how can he pull it around? JAMES DEBONO asks

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

Judging by the results of the surveys published last week, Labour leader Robert Abela is on track to renew Labour’s mandate for another five years. This may well turn the next election in a boring affair, with the outcome already determined months before the election itself.

What remains unclear is whether Bernard Grech will manage to decrease the gap and by how much. Grech will probably stay on to fight another day if he substantially reduces the gap, but his party will be thrown back into chaos if Labour is confirmed with the same margin again as in 2017.

The MaltaToday survey shows that the gap between the two parties has decreased to 6 points, but the gap between the two leaders is now at 11 points. In short, if all those who trust Abela more than they trust Grech vote Labour, Grech’s nightmare scenario – that of a repeat of 2013 and 2017 – will materialise and he may have no choice but to resign.

Will Grech reduce the gap?

While Grech has successfully completed the first stage of his mission as leader, that of reuniting his party and recovering the support of Delia critics, he still has not made any tangible progress in the essential second stage of closing the gap with inroads among Labour voters from the past two elections, especially among switchers who deserted the PN in 2013.

As things stand, the reduced gap between the parties is not the result of any significant shift to the PN but of the emergence of a category of voters who remain uncommitted about either Abela or Grech.

This suggests that Abela’s road to recovery depends on Grech’s ability in the next months to attract Labour voters who may be dithering but still give Abela the benefit of the doubt. One major question, which cannot be measured by surveys, is how strong the attachment of voters to Abela is. For if the hold is precarious, it may well be the case that a strong campaign by the PN can make a difference.

Choosing the right strategy

This raises one big strategic issue for the PN: in its bid to reduce the gap should the party become more moderate, or more hawkish in its attack on Robert Abela’s rule of law credentials?

In his bid to appeal to M.O.R. Labour voters who still have a favourable impression of Abela, Grech may either become more forceful in exposing Abela as Muscat’s clone, or more “moderate” by recognising some positive changes, while remaining vigilant and expecting more results and investigations.

The other question is how far should the PN go in seeking vindication for its anti-corruption stance in 2017, or whether to recognise that this will be hard act to stage now that Joseph Muscat has resigned. For while the 2017 election was effectively a referendum on Muscat – who was judged on the facts which were available at that time – the next election will be more about whether Robert Abela deserves a mandate of his own, possibly one which would further weaken the hold of his predecessor on the party.

Towards a normal election?

One significant change from 2017 is that while former PN leader Simon Busuttil questioned the legitimacy of his adversary as the country’s PM with little evidence but enough reason, Grech will be facing an interlocutor who was not directly implicated in Panamagate. This lends itself to a more ‘normal’ contest where parties compete on policies and leadership style, with the rule of law issue remaining an important but not exclusive issue.

Yet the PN or some elements within it may be tempted to seek a radicalisation of the contest in an attempt to depict Labour as a criminal organisation not worthy of governing the country. The party may well end up presenting a ‘good cop bad cop’ strategy, with Grech retaining an inclusive pitch while unleashing his Rottweilers to tear Abela’s credentials to shreds.

But keeping a balance between two parallel strategies is easier said than done. It will be a hard act to sustain if Abela keeps his distance from Muscat and investigations related to corruption allegations against Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi proceed. The problem for Abela in this scenario is that in his bid to mobilise hardcore supporters, he may end up paying homage to his predecessor in a way which alienates middle-of-the-road voters who now have a clearer idea of what was happening under Muscat’s watch then they did in 2017.

Is Malta ripe for change?

The other problem for the PN is that vindication on corruption cases following the arrest of key figures like Keith Schembri and revelations which raised even more questions on Konrad Mizzi’s energy deals, has not translated in any electoral advances for the PN.

One simplistic reading would be that the Maltese actually ‘like’ corruption and vote for the corrupt… but this could actually be more of a case where Maltese voters expect such issues to be resolved by the police and the courts, while choosing parties on the basis of how they govern. This is why the focus of the PN should be on strengthening the institutions to avoid this from happening again.

Still, institutional sanity – although necessary – is hardly a strong battle-cry to mobilise voters. It can feature in a vote-for-change platform, which itself can embody different issues ranging from the environment and good governance to stagnant wages and affordable housing. But it would not be easy for a party whose electorate is split on social issues and still kept together by an aversion to Labour.

By seeking a third consecutive mandate, Labour under Abela is defying one unwritten rule: that Maltese electorates tend to become itchy after 10 years with the same party in government, a rule which they followed to the letter between 1962 and 1996 and that was only broken by Gonzi’s wafer-thin majority in 2008.

By co-opting a new crop of MPs in parliament and distancing himself from Muscat, Abela may himself be playing the same game, presenting himself as the one offering change in continuity.

Surviving to fight another day

Ultimately, to win a general election the PN will have to convince voters that it is a ‘government in waiting’ which can satisfy the expectation of change.

And to get there it first needs to elect a new crop of MPs which can eventually be seen by voters as a better alternative to Labour. This means that for the PN the next election is an essential peg to launch a successful bid in the following election. If it fails to reduce the gap now, the PN risks condemning itself to another defeat in five years’ time – for it is doubtful whether any party can ever reduce a 35,000-vote margin in five years.

While logically the country will benefit in terms of curtailing the arrogance of the government by narrowing the gap between the parties, it is unrealistic to expect most voters to make this calculation when voting. This is because most voters tend to vote for the party they prefer in government, rather than strengthen the opposition.

Therefore, to even achieve the modest aim of renewing its parliamentary group and reducing the gap, the PN has to convince voters that it has capable and honest people who are ready to govern as from now.

What is sure is that Grech does not have enough time to accomplish a ‘to do list’ which includes the formulation of new policies, while reacting to Labour’s own policy agenda, finding new candidates, appoint new officials, reach out to those who deserted the party in the past years, identify a battle-cry, and formulating a coherent strategy which binds all those contesting on the PN ticket.

It is clear that this can’t be accomplished in the space of a few months.

But that was exactly what PN members chose to do when they ditched the shambolic Adrian Delia leadership and elected a new leader just two years before elections are due. They may well have left Delia to sink and pick up the pieces after the election, even if many doubted whether there would have been any pieces left to pick up after what was seen as an imminent disaster.

In reality, so far Grech has accomplished what should have been achieved in the first two years in opposition. Time is definitely not on his side. But with time running out and his own political future in the balance, Grech has no choice but to take drastic decisions to avert another massive defeat.

Grech is conditioned by the need to avoid further internal conflict in his party. His power of persuasion will be severely tested.