Looking Back 2023: Dissecting the PN's inability to convince

Despite surveys showing the Nationalist Party gaining a small edge over the summer, the general feeling of an unbeatable Labour remains. What is going wrong for the PN?

It has been a tumultuous year marked by scandals and public outcry across various issues for government, and this has left top officials scrambling for solutions.  

From the anger which surrounded calls for a public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia and the unveiling of a driving test racket, to the seemingly endless power cuts which swept Malta in the summer, 2023 was a year of discontent for many people.  

But despite surveys showing the Nationalist Party gaining a small edge over the summer, the general feeling of an unbeatable Labour remains.  

What is going wrong for the PN? Is it an uninspiring leader? Ineffective communication?  

Dissecting the data  

The regularly published MaltaToday survey has shown over the past months that the PN has managed to eat away at the Labour Party’s massive gap. From a chasm of around 39,000 votes, the December survey shows a gap of ‘just’ 10,352.  

While this can be interpreted as the PN making inroads with the electorate, breaking down the numbers shows a different perspective to what is going on.  

The surveys show a high abstention rate among the 2022 voters of both parties, and while abstentions are higher among Labour voters, they are not switching towards the PN. This means they might still vote Labour come next election.  

Crucially surveys also show Grech enjoys a trust rating of just 21.1%, compared to Robert Abela’s 37.5%. Historically the success of the leader translates into success at the polls for the party, and this spells trouble for Bernard Grech’s PN. 

Ideology versus strategy  

MaltaToday reached out to academics George Vital Zammit and Kurt Borg to gauge their views on the PN’s current state.  

For Borg, the PN’s internal struggle on the ideology it wants to embrace makes it unattractive to neutral voters.  

“For many people it’s not clear what the PN is standing for. It seems confused about this question internally, and this is partly to blame for why the PN appears an uncharismatic party. On core issues it is failing to appeal,” Borg said.  

Vital Zammit on the other hand pins it on strategy. “The way the PN seems to react to certain happenings is confusing. When you see how they proposed the liberalisation of the country’s energy supply following the summer power cuts, it failed to convince anyone, and was useless.” 

He additionally emphasised the importance of the electorate knowing the MP handling the shadow portfolio. 

“I remember the political scene in the 80s and 90s, and I remember you could identify the person in charge of the relevant sectors. People will ask themselves in elections - who will I trust with managing the country? And I think there the PN is lacking,” George Vital Zammit said. “I also feel the party is lacking a strategy group, either in a formal or informal structure, which advises the leadership on how it should act.” 

Bad leader or an impossible task?  

The academics agreed Grech must not shoulder all the blame for the PN’s inability to make inroads given his short tenure as party leader.  

“Grech has not been leader for a long time, and so the problems are not exactly his doing,” Kurt Borg said. “The problem in my opinion lies in having a party which is still largely dominated by 40- and 50-year-old males, and this is not only not representative of wider society but makes it difficult to truly understand what certain groups want from the PN.” 

Vital Zammit pointed out that throughout the past decade, the PN has had four leaders.  

“In that situation, it is very difficult to build a vision and eco-system and for that vision to be implemented,” he said. “Those changes brought about internal clashes and divisions, but I do feel that the party has started to heal from those clashes.” 

He said the party making good use of its communication channels remains key to its success.  

“The government has made mistakes, and reacted in a way that did not go down well with people, but the way the PN has delivered its reaction has not been satisfactory,” he said. 

The populist temptation  

Political observers slammed the Nationalist leader for employing populist tactics to address the overpopulation issue facing Malta. 

Kurt Borg said the PN has long “flirted” with populist politics, and he feels it is “morally wrong” for it do so.  

“It is also politically unwise,” he said. “The ambiguity with which Bernard Grech was speaking on the issue does not help gain the floaters’ vote. We also saw him mashing left-wing discourse on food prices and mixing it with populist statements on foreigners. That will not give any electoral mileage to the PN, as it is confusing.” 

On criticism over the populist discourse, Vital Zammit once again pinned the problem on the PN’s shoddy communication.  

“I think the way they are being delivered needs revising. The issues sound populist according to the trumpet that blows them. Overpopulation is an issue, infrastructure is an issue, sustainability is an issue; it is how these concerns are communicated that matters,” he said.  

2023 has been a year of highs and lows for the PN, and as the European Parliament and local council elections loom ever closer, it remains to be seen what discontent against government will mean for it at the polls.