Candidates old and new in hotly-contested fight for PN votes in ninth district

Hospitalisation of heavyweight Robert Arrigo tempers taut race between PN candidates on hotly-contested ninth district

PN deputy leader Robert Arrigo
PN deputy leader Robert Arrigo

A temporary ‘ceasefire’ inside the Nationalist Party’s hotly-contested ninth and tenth districts – the Sliema, St Julian’s constituencies – has been brought about by the sudden hospitalisation of PN deputy leader Robert Arrigo.

The fight for PN votes in the ninth district was shaping out to be a four-horse close challenge between Arrigo, the Nationalist MPs Kristy Debono and Jason Azzopardi and criminal defence lawyer Joe Giglio.

The district is made up of Msida, Swieqi, San Ġwann, Għargħur and Ta’ Xbiex. Three Nationalist MPs were elected in 2017, when the PN secured 13,007 votes (56.3%): Debono (4,022 first count votes), Arrigo (2,099) and Marthese Portelli (1,468 votes). Portelli resigned in 2020 and Ivan J. Bartolo took her seat in a casual election. He later resigned to make way for new PN leader Bernard Grech.

With Portelli’s resignation – and with stalwarts George Pullicino and Francis Zammit Dimech announcing they will not be contesting the election – the road seemed set for a showdown between Arrigo, Debono and the two big newcomers to the district.

It’s a fight that is riven with deep-seated rivalry. Canvassers who spoke to this newspaper said Azzopardi, a lawyer to the Caruana Galizia family, and Giglio have brought a new dimension to the race for votes: clear animosity between the two.

Azzopardi, long elected on the fourth district Labour stronghold, since first contesting in 1998, also spearheaded the PN’s court challenges to force police investigations into the allegations published by the late journalist. Now he is trying to leverage his popularity with PN voters whose loyalty to the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia is an identifier to them. Many of these voters can be found in the Nationalist strongholds and middle-class towns of the ninth and tenth districts.

But canvassers for his rivals say the MP is actually trying to save his parliamentary seat, because he risks losing the fourth district where his appeal has suffered among a more working-class vote that was loyal to former PN leader Adrian Delia. “Azzopardi was one of the main instigators in ousting former leader Adrian Delia,” a canvasser for Kristy Debono, who supported Delia’s bid for leader, told MaltaToday. “With Delia enjoying strong support in the south, Azzopardi could face a block-vote by disgruntled Delia supporters in his home district.”

Yet Azzopardi’s quasi-path to victory with his new supporters was marred by the entrance of Joe Giglio, considered to being also pushed by leader Bernard Grech. A popular TV pundit on political chat shows, Giglio’s stature was such that in a MaltaToday survey on possible party leaders, he got an impressive showing together with Grech, Roberta Metsola and Claudio Grech.

With at least three seats up for grabs in the ninth district, with Arrigo and Debono as incumbents, Giglio and Azzopardi will have to battle it out in the race for PN votes.

Canvassers have been out in full force over the past few weeks. Arrigo, a former Sliema mayor, is a mainstay of the district and close to constituents. “The number of activities Robert was organising weekly was unheard of,” an activist close to Arrigio said. “With these new names in the running, we made a conscious decision to step up our visibility in the ninth district and the 10th. He realised he could not sit back and count on traditional support.”

Kristy Debono has also increased home visits: her past affiliation with Adrian Delia could risk losing her support with voters from a district that was not enamoured with Delia.

Giglio and Azzopardi retain an oversized presence in the press and social media. Yet one party insider says Giglio’s ties to particular clients is making him vulnerable to “whispering campaigns” on his suitability to become an MP.

Azzopardi too has his internal detractors, who resent his crusading spirit as posturing that wins him a lot of media attention.

Azzopardi had also refused to have Giglio matched up with him when he was shadow justice minister, under a PN scheme to match incoming candidates with shadow ministers.

The jury is still out on whether Arrigo’s hospitalisation weakens the deputy leader’s chances of running on the district, a move that could open the field wide open for the main three contenders, with minor candidates Tiffany Abela Wadge and Graham Bencini fighting for latter-preference votes.