Looking forward 2024: Bernard Grech’s do-or-die appointment in June’s MEP elections

With the MEP elections right around the corner in June, KARL AZZOPARDI looks at the Nationalist Party's chance of taking back the third MEP seat it lost in 2019 and the impact on Bernard Grech's future

Bernard Grech
Bernard Grech

When seeking re-election as leader, Bernard Grech took a calculated gamble - he promised to resign if the PN fails to elect three MEPs.

Coming just after a record electoral defeat, Grech needed to convince members that despite the loss, he was still the right man for the job.

For seasoned election observers a third seat for the PN in the European Parliament is a given – the party only missed the third seat by a whisker last time around.

Only extraordinary circumstances could see the Labour Party once again winning four seats, but stranger things have happened.

Now as the holiday season passes, political parties turn on their electoral engines with one goal in mind – the European Parliament election in June.

On the back of a year of discontent against government scandals and screwups, the PN’s performance in electoral surveys has not been impressive. Any improvement has been relative since a smaller vote gap is primarily due to a strong Labour abstention.

The biggest downside for the PN is that its leader’s popularity stands at only 21.1%, compared to Robert Abela’s 37.5%, according to the last MaltaToday survey in December.

So will the 2024 MEP elections be do or die for Bernard Grech’s leadership, or will he have a last shot at success in the general election due in 2027?

A third seat is the minimum

 George Vital Zammit
George Vital Zammit

For academic George Vital Zammit, poor showings in the MEP elections would spell trouble for both the party and its leader.

“If the PN does not find the right formula, we are speaking of nine more years of Labour government,” he said. “This is his second big challenge. If he doesn’t get any sort of result, the sign of this leadership not doing anything will be very visible.”

He said getting a third seat is the minimum the PN can achieve, and anything less would be absolute failure.

“A third seat is the minimum, but it also needs to show that it is a recovering party, closing the margin and with a view towards the general election,” he said. “2024 is crucial for both of them.”

Academic Kurt Borg on the other hand said that while the elections may be “indicative”, it’s not Grech’s last chance.

“One has to see how the result pans out, and how Grech will use it to his advantage,” he said. Borg also pointed out that for his leadership to be in jeopardy, one must see whether a leadership bid will be made by someone else. “I’m not sure whether that will happen,” Borg said.

The PN should ensure they are making use of their best asset - Roberta Metsola – Vital Zammit added.

“I think the PN’s biggest contradiction has been that its best asset was overseas. I think they can help each other. Rather than be seen as an antagonist for the leadership role, she might as well not return at all,” he said.

No gain from Labour’s losses

Kurt Borg
Kurt Borg

The academics were asked if they believe surveys have been giving a clear picture of how the electorate will vote come next June.

Vital Zammit said while results have differed from one newspaper to another, some patterns have emerged.

“While Labour has cemented itself as the natural party in government, surveys show that it is losing support. The problem lies in the PN not gaining from Labour’s losses,” he said.

Kurt Borg said surveys show people are fed of the duopoly of the big parties. “Surveys clearly show people have lost trust and faith in both of them.”

Borg also believes patterns will shift once the electoral campaign begins. “It is unfortunate because the debate on the failures of the political parties will be forgotten in the next couple of months.”

Not a particularly amazing leader

The academics were also asked to assess Grech’s performance as party leader. Grech was first elected in 2020 in a putsch that cast aside Adrian Delia and reconfirmed leader in a solo race after the 2022 general election.

“I am not sure. He has not been a terrible leader, but he has also shown to not be a particularly amazing leader. The PN still struggles with ambiguity. It’s incredible how the PN from the Opposition manages to shoot itself in the foot, and that lets him down,” Kurt Borg said.

Borg said one of the issues lies in how the PN has approached the civil rights debate in the past decade.

“There used to be a time when on civil rights the PN used to place itself on the moral high-ground and say society was not ready for these changes. Now the situation has flipped, and the PN is not ready for these conversations, and it’s for this reason the party is unable to elevate its profile to a realistic option for government,” he said.

Vital Zammit said that while he believed Grech’s good intentions are there, results have left a lot to be desired.

“I see a genuine human approach to politics, but he lacks a proper strategy team around him. Decisions taken by the party are sometimes rushed,” he said.

He insisted it all boils down to winning. “Like a coach in football is judged on their ability to win, the same goes with a party leader. And this must start in the MEP elections,” Vital Zammit said. “A leader needs to win something.”

Whatever the future holds for Bernard Grech at the helm of the PN, the coming six months will prove crucial. Even if he survives and decides to stay the course until 2027, the MEP elections will set the tone for what follows.