Bernard’s Sisyphean predicament: the PN leader’s predicament

Bernard Grech keeps rolling an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time he makes some progress... but unlike the mythical Sisyphus, Grech does not even reach the top of the hill and is now bogged down in the swamp of the PN’s internal troubles. So why does Grech fail to make any progress?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Delia’s ‘blueshirts’ have  dispelled any semblance of party unity and can do so again

An Independence Day stunt which saw Delia’s “team” dressed in ‘dark blue’ shirts was a reminder of the factional strife in the party. With an election around the corner, Grech cannot afford to alienate Delia as this weakens the party’s brand. Despite being reprimanded, Delia was still able to secure a candidature on both the seventh and eight districts.

Grech himself had previously admitted Delia knows he has the power to sink him by dashing any perception of party unity through such antics. MOR voters are not impressed by this sad spectacle. Unsurprisingly, Robert Abela uses party unity as his trump card while Grech has to bend over backwards to keep divisions from erupting again.

Removing a party leader mid-way through a legislature was a perfect recipe for future recriminations, which risk haunting the party during and after the next election

Grech inspires more trust then Delia and he is more capable in holding social liberals and enlightened conservatives under the same tent. The MaltaToday survey indicates Delia’s favourite battle-cry, immigration, is only considered the most important issue by 1% of the electorate. But the forceful removal of a party leader midway through the legislature, mostly due to his low polling, was unprecedented, especially in a society where leaders command the personal loyalty of their followers.

Delia still commands a degree of loyalty in his party, which complicates matters for Grech, whose own failures in the polls can only be interpreted by Delia’s supporters as confirmation of the unfairness of the coup right before he could prove himself in a general election.

Things would have been simpler for the PN if it faced an inevitable defeat with Delia at its helm. It could have empowered a more unifying and probably more socially liberal leader to emerge. A defeat for Grech leaves room for a Delia comeback, or a vindication for conservatives who dislike Grech’s moderate approach on cannabis liberalisation or pro-choice candidates. It could also lead to a protracted crisis of identity for the PN, consolidating Labour as a natural party of government.

Corruption ranks low as an issue; environment ranks higher but this remains a tricky issue for Grech

The PN still struggles with a battlecry to keep its electoral bloc united while attracting undecided voters. Abela’s Labour scores low on fighting corruption (57% rated it negatively) but this issue also ranks low (just 7.3%) compared to personal income or the state of the economy when voters are asked which issue is most important to them. It means the PN cannot win over voters by replicating the 2017 campaign in which fighting corruption was the party’s main plank.

It’s the economy (39.5%) that is the most important issue, followed by disposable income (29.4%) – on both issues Labour gets a positive rating. One may argue that the PN should focus more on bread-and-butter issues, but dissatisfaction on both the economy and personal incomes is low. In this sense Labour is winning on the basis of its own merits. The budget only strengthens this advantage. Recognising these merits and promising improvements may be a better strategy for the PN than blaming the electorate for keeping a corrupt party in power.

But Labour may be in trouble over disenchantment with the environmental consequences of its development model (21% rate it as an important issue), and is the second-most important issue for graduates, pensioners, and the under-35s.

Tackling this issue is tricky for Grech, who threads carefully between appealing to the green vote without alienating both developers’ lobby and people benefiting from the property boom. This may be understandable for a big tent party which does not want to scare off voters and still requires a well-oiled machine funded by big business.

Bu the PN still sends mixed messages, evident in its commitment not to change local plans or reverse planning policies introduced by Labour in the past years. Instead the party has proposed a convoluted commitment to seek a two-thirds majority for policies regulating ODZ.

It is not surprising that the environment is the top issue for non-voters (42%): clearly the PN is still not perceived as the party, which can bring change on environmental issues.

The PN can promise the world, but people are sceptical of promises made by a party with little chance of getting elected

The PN is in overdrive with proposals that can dispel the perception that it is a negative party. But with Labour’s wide advantage in the polls, voters are likely to dismiss its proposals as a desperate attempt to win votes: in this sense the polls are the party’s greatest enemy. It is no surprise that on Sunday Grech conjured the spectre of a ‘silent majority’ which is wary of declaring its support for the PN in surveys but would do so on election day. There is no historic precedent for a party trailing in the polls by such a wide margin, to win an election. The PN can only offer a stronger opposition to keep Labour on its heels.

Grech cannot properly articulate the most convincing reason for voting PN: clipping Labour’s wings

What is at stake in the next election is not whether Labour remains in power, but whether it will win with the same or an even greater margin than last time.

The latter prospect is very likely even if undesirable to voters who fear Labour’s hubris and omnipotence. Most seem to think Labour is the better option, but many others would like a strong opposition that keeps Labour on its heels. A trouncing for the PN in the next election would not only diminish the chances of a change in government in 2027, but could even throw the opposition into a long period of chaos.

Grech cannot afford admitting that he has no chance of winning the next election, which is why he needs to conjure up an improbable silent majority to defy survey predictions. The situation is indeed paradoxical for Grech: he would sound ridiculous if hopeful of a victory, and perceived a loser if he admits what everybody already knows.

Perhaps being realistic and inviting the electorate to invest in a stronger and regenerated opposition, which can be in government in 2027, could well be the most honest strategy than selling an unrealisable dream.