The PN’s search for a knight in shining armour

Christian Peregin’s decision to join the Nationalist Party last week smacks of a déjà vu from 2016 but the Labour Party must also ask itself some questions • Kurt Sansone analyses the dilemmas

The Nationalist Party and its leaders have been trailing badly in the polls ever since the 2017 general election delivered a thumping defeat. 

A change in leader last year led to some improvement but the gap between PN leader Bernard Grech and his political rival Robert Abela remains wide. 

In the last MaltaToday survey Grech’s trust rating stood at 30.4%. Since his election as leader last September, Grech’s highest rating reached 35.8% and his lowest 25.7%. 

A pandemic, greylisting, criminal action on money laundering by people who were close to the Labour government and damning claims against Rosianne Cutajar over a property deal involving Yorgen Fenech, have done little to dent Abela’s trust rating and his party’s standing in the polls. 

Unable to make much progress in the polls despite having gone through the trouble of changing its leader, it was inevitable for the PN to search for solutions. 


The Peregin dilemmas 

And one of the solutions was roping in Lovin Malta founder Christian Peregin last week as chief strategist. 

Undoubtedly, Peregin’s skills set will give the PN more bite in imagery, coherent messaging, delivery and outreach. 

But his ability to read the mind-set of party functionaries and supporters coming from different backgrounds to his will be tested. 

The PN struggles to connect with people in the south, has alienated the hunting community, lost its primacy in Gozo and is beholden to a faction fixated on making corruption the only important issue. 

What Peregin can contribute to address these lacunas still has to be seen.  

Indeed, Peregin’s public campaigns through his Lovin Malta portal targeting political party TV stations and rallying for cannabis legalisation will put him at loggerheads with the party he now serves. 

PN media employees sought assurances from the party leader that Peregin’s engagement will not cost them their job. 

In an interview on Lovin Malta, the day after news of his new job came out, Peregin made an indirect reference to the disquiet among PN employees, insisting no one should lose their job, while insisting the court case did not seek the abolishment of political party stations. 

This may be the least of his problems. It remains to be seen how Peregin’s pro-legalisation stand on cannabis will square up with the likes of Claudio Grech, who is totally opposed. Additionally, it will be interesting to see how Peregin’s liberal views on abortion, IVF and gay rights will fit in with conservatives like Edwin Vassallo. 

These are only a few of the personal dilemmas Peregin will face as he tries to find the “higher cause” that can unite these diverse elements and inspire voters to follow suite. 


Cart before the horse 

However, there is a big problem because Peregin joining the PN machine does feel like putting the cart before the horse. 

Voters will not be looking at Peregin. Indeed, he will not be the face or voice of the PN. Voters will be looking at the party leader and so far, Grech has failed to inspire trust. 

Peregin’s effectiveness will only be as strong as the party leader’s effectiveness to map out a vision and lay out the steps necessary to achieve it. 

This is what happened back in 2008 when Joseph Muscat became leader of the Labour Party. He immediately set out his vision to widen the PL’s appeal to liberals, moderates and the business community. 

Muscat also carried out the necessary internal changes, reached out to estranged Labourites, while making it clear that he was calling the shots. 

The Labour leader had articulated his vision clearly and this enabled him to rope in talented individuals, most of who worked behind the scenes, who drove that change, fine-tuned the image and ensured the message was delivered coherently. 

Within this context, it does appear like the PN is trying to find its knight in shining armour to save the day because everything else has failed. 

Peregin has tried to defuse this image and in his interview with Lovin Malta insisted that he will not be joining the PN with an attitude of ‘my way or the highway’. “It’s a question of open discussion, persuasion and finding common ground,” he said. 


A déjà vu 

But to political observers, Peregin’s move from journalism to party politics is a déjà vu of what happened in 2016 when then PN leader Simon Busuttil roped in Caroline Muscat, who was then head of news at Times of Malta. Muscat was tasked with leading the PN’s electoral campaign. 

Ironically, just a month before making the switch, Muscat had interviewed Busuttil who told her that on Independence Day the PN will be “switching on the party machine and we won’t be switching it off until the election, which we intend to win”. 
Muscat’s impact was not felt. The general election in June 2017 caught the PN unprepared, disorganised and in a quandary, with a message that failed to resonate with the electorate. 

A lot has happened since then, including the brutal murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the prosecution of people close to power over murder, corruption and money laundering, and a global pandemic. 

Today’s circumstances are different from 2017 and yet the PN has been unable to make inroads. 

Peregin’s engagement is an attempt to try and change this state of affairs but he will just be a cog in a large machine that requires the captain to first and foremost chart out the course ahead. 


Labour’s soul-searching 

But Peregin’s decision to publicly associate himself with the PN, while letting go of his successful business, should also prompt the Labour Party to carry out a soul-searching exercise. 

Peregin represents a cohort of people the PL had managed to painstakingly convince over a number of years to vote for it. 

He represents an English-speaking, well-educated middle class that cherishes liberal values and which does not have a natural disposition to support Labour. Yet, many like him felt comfortable transitioning to Labour during the Muscat years. 

Brushing off Peregin’s public switch to the PN as a move by someone who has always been a Nationalist will be simplistic and counterproductive.  

The PL must ask itself why someone like him, who voted for it in 2013, publicly joined the PN at a time when its electoral prospects look very bleak. 

Peregin may have provided part of the answer in his wordy explanation to justify his own transition to PN when he said the government is not listening to its critics. 

Indeed, his analysis of the situation may serve as a spring board for an honest appraisal within the PL of the Joseph Muscat legacy, warts and all. 

Meanwhile, as Peregin swaps his Lovin Malta office at Burmarrad with the Stamperija in Pietà, the PN will hope that this knight in shining armour will help shore up its prospects.