Bernard calling Planet Franco

Franco Debono could serve as an effective billboard to lure back PN switchers who felt excluded from the party back in 2013. But can the party handle his tempestuous character or is the circus back in town asks JAMES DEBONO

Franco Debono with PN MP Alex Borg
Franco Debono with PN MP Alex Borg

There is no need for a big ‘welcome back’ party for Franco Debono, according to party leader Bernard Grech – because he is already a card-holding member and a party councillor who regularly communicates with its leader. That should be the end of the story.

Yet, this prompts another question: does Grech have a future role for the former rebel backbencher who singlehandedly brought the moribund Gonzi government down in a budget vote in 2012?

The return of the prodigal son

It is here where Grech, whose greatest accomplishment in the past year was to restore internal peace by bringing back Adrian Delia to his front-bench, is walking on a tightrope. Sure, the return of the party’s prodigal son would send a strong message to switchers who left the party in droves in 2013 to emulate Debono, the sworn enemy of the “evil clique” which he had denounced in the dying days of the Gonzi administration.

In fact, Franco Debono would be more effective than any billboard in reaching out to switchers who, like him, felt excluded from the party. Many of these fears being snubbed again by detached party officials; Debono could serve as a role model to reassure them.

But any mention of his return is bound to create a reaction among a section in the party’s grassroots who have not forgiven him for bringing a PN government down. More pragmatic insiders are open to his return, but fear his tantrums and doubt his ability to work in a team. Even more vocal are people like Edward Debono, a regular commentator of the PN media, and Repubblika activist Manuel Delia, who speak on their own steam and not on behalf of the party, but whose words carry significant weight amongst a section of PN voters.

The problem for the party is that by overreacting to contrarians - like, for example, storming a radio studio to rebut Edward Debono's claims that he would only rejoin the party if offered a position in the leadership, Franco Debono continues to create a sideshow that dominates the news cycle, disturbing the internal peace in the party providing merriment to the Labour Party.

Manuel Delia’s brutal takedown

In reacting to Manuel Delia’s brutal turn of phrase comparing Debono to “a re-emerging tumour” that is “too small for scans, and before you know it too big to carry,” Debono did not limit himself to shooting down Delia. He brought slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia into the equation, accusing Delia of continuing the “tradition of hate blogs” and pointing out that the PN had never won an election since Caruana Galizia had started her blog. In another post, Debono rebuked comparisons between Caruana Galizia and anti-mafia heroes Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, noting that none of these had “thrown plates” (a reference to her publicised domestic argument) or evaded tax.

While Debono is probably in sync with a large segment of the population that is averse to the brutal takedown of political adversaries and even people and family members found guilty by association, he cannot ignore Caruana Galizia’s larger-than-life status after paying the ultimate price for her journalistic work with her life. Ignoring this sentiment, which prevails not only in the PN but also amongst a sizeable chunk of independent voters who see in Caruana Galizia a symbol of irreverence and a victim of the murderous nexus between big business, organised crime, and politicians, does not bode well for the reacceptance of Debono in the PN.

Battle for the party’s soul?

Debono is not isolated in the PN and has even found a godfather to vouch for his goodwill. Delia’s brutal analogy triggered a strong reaction from Gozitan Nationalist MP Alex Borg, who described Delia as “a small man dangerously posing as a pseudo-intellectual.”

Significantly, Borg is internally perceived as an ally of former PN leader Adrian Delia, whose election to the leadership in 2017 had exposed the limited influence Caruana Galizia’s aura had on the party’s grassroots, who had effectively voted for the candidate who had called her a “biċċa blogger”.

Borg is also associated with the party’s more conservative wing, having even questioned government priorities when it introduced free gender reassignment surgery for transsexuals – a trait which further underlies the cultural split in the PN between Caruana Galizia-loving liberals and traditionalists. Still, even here it is hard to pigeon-hole Franco Debono, who does not particularly come across as a social conservative.

Manuel Delia, on his part, reacted to Borg by underlining his role as a free agent with no say in the PN, which is correct. Yet he cannot ignore popular perception, not just because of his past role as an aide of former minister (and Franco Debono’s nemesis) Austin Gatt, but also of the active role of Repubblika in dethroning Adrian Delia.

The risk of Franco Debono’s return to the PN, if not handled well and clearly defined, is that the controversy it generates could spiral out of control, devolving into a sideshow that Labour is bound to exploit, and which could trigger a culture war within the Nationalist Party.

For example, Debono’s return is bound to trigger an internal debate between two different conceptions of justice: between the zeal of anti-corruption crusaders and Debono’s equally zealous insistence on safeguards for the accused.

The ego-driven and enthusiastic Debono would be easier to contain in a strong party with clear objectives but may be too risky in a party with a perennial identity problem. For the PN still struggles to answer one basic question: what does it mean to be a Nationalist in 2024?

Adding Debono to the mix may actually provoke this much-needed decision, but the ensuing discussion will be at best brutal and at worst a circus.