Edwin and Jason: End of the road for two PN archetypes

In the process of electing 17 new MPs, the Nationalist Party lost two of its most iconic figures: an ultra-conservative shopkeeper, and a sanctimonious lawyer who reinvented himself as the PN’s fire-and-brimstone anti-corruption crusader. JAMES DEBONO explores their legacy

Edwin Vassallo (left) and Jason Azzopardi (right)
Edwin Vassallo (left) and Jason Azzopardi (right)

Both elected to parliament in every legislature since 1998, Edwin Vassallo (who was first elected in 1996) and Jason Azzopardi were among the most vocal party voices against the introduction of divorce in Malta before the watershed referendum of 2011.

The referendum opened the floodgates for subsequent liberal reforms but Vassallo and Azzopardi, alongside former party leader Lawrence Gonzi, had defied the referendum result and voted against the divorce bill, which was approved by parliament in 2011. Both formed part of Gonzi’s Cabinet.

The similarities stop here.

Azzopardi relentlessly worked to unseat Adrian Delia from leader, while Vassallo, who had initially supported Chris Said in the leadership contest, remained loyal to the leader. Vassallo may have been emboldened by Delia’s references to ‘religio et patria’ and his hardline stance against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence on the flimsy grounds that it excluded a reference to the unborn child; in July 2020, Vassallo even invited MPs “disloyal” to leader Adrian Delia to resign from the party, saying they “no longer belong”.

Authenticity and toxic bananas

While increasingly anachronistic, Vassallo’s shopkeeper mentality gave him a lack of sophistication that ironically brought him the allure of a man of the people, a marked distinction in a party of lawyers. Consistent to the end, even after failing to get elected, Vassallo reaffirmed his loyalty to the party while adding that his “first loyalty is towards his faith.”

Yet his brand of ‘authenticity’ was a reminder of the exclusionary politics which made his party toxic for many voters. Even in his profession of faith, his main concern remained abortion, rarely ever giving voice to other Christian concerns like the treatment of migrants. His stance on hunting was anything but Franciscan, but only politically convenient.

Not surprisingly, in 2004 Vassallo had been one of two MPs (the other being Rabat notary Tony Abela) to have chosen John Dalli – a self-made accountant with sprawling business interests – over Lawrence Gonzi, a lawyer hailing from the heart of the traditional establishment.

After Gonzi’s victory, Vassallo was still entrusted with the parliamentary secretariat for small businesses. His pearls of wisdom then included an address to parliament’s social affairs committee, where he warned that “what happens in the bedroom often ends up before the State to do something about it”, citing single parents and teenage pregnancies as examples of the problems created inside the unsupervised bed.

His charm could be illustrated by his proud tradition to construct a brand new Christmas nativity crib every year in his Mosta home, starting work as early as August, with all figurines being hand-made. And in many ways his vision was that of keeping Malta a crib: “Political parties are not shops without a philosophy… the Nationalist Party knows what its philosophy is, but it must make a clear statement that it still upholds the values which shaped it,” he had told MaltaToday in an interview right before the divorce referendum.

He plodded on the conservative path as the country marched in the opposite direction, clashing with Simon Busuttil in his final days as party leader by going on the history books as the only MP to vote against gay marriage.

But in the world of viral social media, Vassallo’s outbursts became more embarrassing, notoriously so when he shared a post about ‘satanic’ bananas infected by HIV-infected blood – something which he apologised for but which opened him up to ridicule.

Jason Azzopardi’s crusade

In contrast, the equally conservative Jason Azzopardi found new battles to fight, reinventing himself as a relentless anti-corruption crusader and later as the foremost critic of former PN leader Adrian Delia whom he regarded as Labour’s ‘Trojan horse’ even before he was elected PN leader.

As lawyer to the Caruana Galizia family, he had access to damning information, titbits of which he often prematurely shared on Facebook or in Parliament, only to be partly vindicated later but at the cost of sounding divisive and spiteful. With the impression that he relished his role as self-appointed prophet, even after being voted out he could not but restate his confidence in his vindication by the outcomes of magisterial inquiries into the corruption of Labour figures.

Despite partly vindicated by revelations on the cover-up of the Caruana Galizia assassination, including his explosive claim that the murder suspects had been tipped off before the Marsa police raid, his sanctimonious approach made him an easy target of the Labour propaganda machine, riding on his inconsistencies to divert attention from far more serious accusations against the Muscat era’s top brass.

Azzopardi’s sanctimonious, self-righteous tone contrasted with a Maltese culture epitomised by the expression “biex tiskonġra trid tkun pur” (only the pure can condemn others) – a maxim seemingly designed to silence 99% of the population.

But some of Azzopardi’s inconsistencies were too glaring and sensational not to notice. One was his Tel Aviv hotel freebie paid by the Tumas Group’s Ray Fenech in July 2017. Or while lambasting Labour’s power of incumbency, as minister he signed the expropriation of land at Fekruna in a government land swap on the eve of the 2013 general election.

Popular revulsion at his ways explained why an online comment by his ex-wife, alleging that Azzopardi claimed he went to seek contemplation at Christ’s tomb to justify his Israeli escapade during their marital separation, became a wildfire meme.

And his single-minded role in dethroning Adrian Delia also turned a large segment of Nationalists against him, further isolating him.

With his habit of using potentially explosive information online to undermine targets, putting his personal crusade before party unity, made it impossible for any party leader, including Bernard Grech, to contain him.

In short, it was not Azzopardi’s scrutiny of Labour which turned people off (Repubblika-aligned politicians like Mark Anthony Sammut performed very well in the election), but his self-righteousness, drama and constant habit to jump the gun, naturally expecting people to await a final vindication for his claims.

And every time he was partly vindicated, he kept raising the stakes, such as his allegations about Carmelo Abela’s role in the HSBC heist – a matter now subject of a defamation case, which kept Azzopardu in the news cycle but penalised his party as it was impossible to contain him. This also explains why even his relationship with Bernard Grech and his team was strained.

Still, it is worth noting that two of Azzopardi’s more recent targets – Carmelo Abela and Edward Zammit Lewis – were kept out of Robert Abela’s Cabinet after the election. Despite his flaws, Azzopardi’s legacy survives in a package of anti-mafia and anti-corruption laws he piloted before the election, which were shot down by the government; but if ever endorsed by a future government, they would represent the boldest step in buttressing the State against any future attempt at state capture by a nexus of big business and crime, as probably happened under Joseph Muscat.

A new strategy?

It remains to be seen whether the new crop of PN MPs will produce someone who is as scathing as Azzopardi in scrutinising government, but who is less tainted by past inconsistencies and is less of a drama queen.

However, there is also a strong possibility that unhinged from party obligations, Azzopardi will be more of a loose cannon and a reference point for those in the party who prioritise fighting Labour to winning elections. Still, his presence in that crowd will ensure that it will never reach out to Labour (and Delia) voters who detest corruption, but recoil at Jason’s antics.

It also remains to be seen whether the conservative wing of the party will find a more articulate voice than Edwin Vassallo or whether his legacy will live on outside the Nationalist Party, among true believers who feel politically orphaned.

The party’s inability to open up to pro-choice liberals suggests that while Vassallo is gone, the party is still conditioned by his world view. What is sure is that without Jason and Edwin, the party’s parliamentary bench will be less colourful but more functional and easier to align to party strategy if ever there is one.