2013 in review | The new face of the PN

Simon Busuttil was part of the leadership that suffered a 36,000-vote drubbing in March 2013. Can the new PN leader change the fortunes of the unpopular Opposition and bring its finances back in order?

Simon Busuttil and Mario de Marco: did PN councillors make the right choice for leader?
Simon Busuttil and Mario de Marco: did PN councillors make the right choice for leader?

The PN's electoral drubbing in March was not only unprecedented in terms of the defeat's magnitude, but it also brought to an end a 30-year era in which the PN was the dominant political force, with Labour permanently living in its shadow.

Now that the PN hegemony was shattered by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's Labour Party, the PN is in an unique and unenviable position.

While fatigue, and costly errors such as the honoraria saga and the oil scandal, were factors in its downfall, the underlining factor was credibility and the lack of it. When Simon Busuttil took over the party's helm in May, he inherited a party with zero credibility and a party in shambles.

In recent political history, only Labour under Alfred Sant's stewardship in the early 90s faced a similar predicament, with the former Labour leader having to rebuild the party from scratch. Busuttil's election as PN leader will undoubtedly draw comparisons with that of Joseph Muscat, who was also elected party leader after a stint in the European Parliament in 2008.

But Busuttil starts at a disadvantage when compared to Muscat, because the PN not only suffered an unprecedented drubbing but he also tarnished his immaculate reputation by playing a major role in the PN's defeat.

When in opposition, the PN always showed itself to be a formidable force, as Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant could testify, however the circumstances are now different. Labour and Muscat have an aura of invincibility around them while the PN is still a 'work-in-progress'.

The roots of the PN trashing go beyond the 2008 election, when the PN won by a whisker. The haemorrhage of votes dates back to the 2003 election, which was characterised by EU membership, and the PN probably won the election by default because the majority of the electorate wanted Malta to join the EU.

The PN now has a long road ahead of it and Busuttil's performance in the coming months could shape the party's future in the next five to 10 years. The party has no major battle cry, as it had with democracy in the 1980s and EU membership in the late 1990s.

But Busuttil's first priority must be to rebrand his party and regain credibility, both on a personal and party level.

Busuttil's leadership

Seven months down the line, doubts remain over Busuttil's capability of wooing back the swarm of voters who deserted the PN in the March election.

Busuttil's popularity among PN voters is indisputable, with MaltaToday surveys held before his election as leader showing that he enjoyed the support of slightly over 50% of respondents - the same level he enjoyed among the 900 councillors who voted him in office in May.

However, the same surveys showed Busuttil trailing behind current PN deputy leader Mario de Marco in all the other categories of voters, including former PN voters who switched to Labour in the last general election.

The suggestion that Nationalist councillors were in sync with the wishes of 43% of voters who still voted PN in the past general election, while singing from a different hymn sheet from the wider electorate, might have been addressed by the election of de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami as party deputy leaders.

Busuttil's popularity with PN voters has also been steadily growing since taking over the party, however, he still lags behind Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in the popularity ratings, with the latest MaltaToday survey showing that Muscat enjoys a 17-point lead over his former colleague in the European Parliament.

The PN leader's stature has also undergone a slow but steady transformation, with Busuttil gaining confidence and composure in his public appearances following a nervous and almost sheepish start. Yet, this is not enough to close the gap on Labour. The PN needs to convince the electorate that it offers a better alternative to Labour and with an ever-growing divisive political scene and Joseph Muscat's overwhelming presence, the PN needs take the game to a different level.


The PN's biggest difficulty remains credibility. Since Busuttil's election, the PN has led aggressive campaigns against the controversial citizenship scheme, government appointments and ministers' declaration of assets. Although the PN's criticism was legitimate, the party is still exposed to counter-criticism that the pot is once again calling the kettle black.

Credibility is lost easily but it takes a painfully long time to regain. The PN and Busuttil cannot regain the people's trust overnight, however it should not stop them from calling a spade a spade. The Labour government is bound to slip up and its 'Malta Taghna Lkoll' mantra is there for the Opposition's taking, yet the PN has to reconstruct its credibility while concurrently rebuilding its structures.

The PN cannot simply play a waiting game and sit comfortably expecting Labour to slip up. As previous elections have shown, it's not enough for government to lose its credibility to herald a change in government: as Muscat's Labour has shown in the March election, the opposition must convince the electorate that it is a better alternative, but Busuttil's tarnished reputation poses a stumbling block in the PN's quest to regain power.

Had de Marco won the leadership, he might have been in a better position to take on Labour more aggressively, counting on his detachment from the PN's divisive electoral campaign and his relatively fresh face.

Apart from getting its house in order, the PN must reclaim the middle ground it lost. The party's leadership could have well realised that this should be done by standing its ground and expose each and every government flaw. Yet, this not only makes it harder for the party to win back the goodwill of the switchers, but Muscat's soft approach could herald an era in which every form of criticism of government's actions is labelled as divisive and unpatriotic.

This underlines the need for the PN to regain credibility, otherwise it could be left in the wilderness for a longer time than expected.

Team PN

With the electorate seemingly still wary of Busuttil's credibility, the PN seems to have decided to counterbalance Muscat's semi-presidential persona and the PN's loss of credibility over the last five years or so, by banking on "Team PN" rather than have Busuttil woo voters back.

The notion of having a team rather than a singular person leading the party reflects the PN's realisation that the 2008 "GonziPN" concept not only failed in electoral terms, but it also led to the demise of the PN's former invincible machine.

With the election of de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami, coupled with that of former justice minister Chris Said as secretary-general, Busuttil has set the tune for the next few years: keeping everyone on board and broadening responsibility over his team's future successes or failures.

However, the PN's stand on gay adoptions and the citizenship scheme have exposed the differing ideological currents within the party, with the PN scared of alienating both its conservative and liberal voters, weakening the party's stand on all counts.

Busuttil's decision to opt for a "Team PN" means that he needs to strike a balance between the party's different souls without weakening or strengthening one particular faction, which could take control of the party and relive the Gonzi years, typified by the autocratic rule of a small faction.

Statute changes

In a clear attempt to distance himself from Gonzi and the previous party administrations, Busuttil has gone to great lengths to renew the party. Not only did the PN introduce a new deputy leader, but it will also be approving further changes which could see future PN leaders elected by all party members rather than the 900 or so councillors.

Following the catastrophic electoral defeat in March, the party's grassroots pinpointed the marginalisation of activists from the party's inner circles and the lack of new blood as one of the main reasons for the party's demise, and if approved, the new amendments will allow all card-carrying members to vote for their leaders.

One of the key amendments proposes the election of PN leaders and deputy leaders by all party members following the creation of a General Convention, which would shape and discuss the party's policies. The convention would include all paying party members and "serve as a forum in which members of the public, civil society and social partners are invited to participate in".

To date, PN leaders are elected by the 900 councillors, which include MPs, candidates, party officials and representatives of local committees, which often tend to be handpicked by the dominant faction within the party.

In a clear attempt to address the democratic deficit within its structures, the PN is planning to open up its doors to increase female and youth participation. The proposed amendments include changes to the composition of the executive council, which would be made up of nine women and nine men.

MEP elections

The Opposition has made winning the EP's sixth seat, up for grabs in May's European election, a matter of do-or-die, with Busuttil pinning his hopes on leading the party to win its third seat for the first time ever.

Although at a glance this appears to be a Herculean task, electoral data shows that the PN stands a very good chance of securing the third seat. In the two previous European elections, Labour got three out of the five seats available. In the 2009 election, Labour won by 35,000-vote margin and elected a sixth MEP after the Lisbon Treaty increased Malta's allocation of seats.

The PN's decision to raise the stakes and place so much importance on electing a third MEP might look risky and could possibly come back to haunt Busuttil's party, however numbers show that the likelihood of winning a third seat is not remote at all. Based on the 2009 election results, the PN has as good a chance of winning three seats as Labour has of retaining four seats. In the last round, the election result was worked out on five seats, while next year's election will be worked out on six.

Unless a disaster of cataclysmic proportions hits the Labour government, the possibility of the PN actually overturning the two-seat deficit is impossible.

For the first time ever, Labour goes into the European election as the party in power; and if the dreaded mid-term effect comes into play, then the PN could spring a surprise and reduce the gap to such an extent that winning a third seat would be a formality.

However, in the likely absence of a massive wave of absenteeism by Labour voters, the PN will have to win back a number of the switchers who crossed the divide in the March general election.

An aggressive campaign in the coming months may simply turn switchers off, however the PN must take risks and capitalise on any sign of discontent among Labour voters.

Next year's election is most likely to centre around migration, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's bullish stand on the pushback of asylum seekers seems to be in sync with the electorate, including PN voters.

This makes the next European election an uphill struggle for the Opposition, which is still coming to terms with the heaviest defeat in history. However, if it equals the 2004 European election result or at least makes minor inroads from the last round, winning a third seat is well within its grasp.

Great article! ... Indeed the PN have been destructively criticizing everything the government introduced since day one, thus their credibility is zero. ... Taking the civil unions for example: although they promised gay rights for 15 years and did not do anything, now they are again opposing the government for finally implementing what it promised. Given that both parties promised this in their electoral manifesto, I would have thought such a law would have breezed through parliament. I for one hold them responsible for the delay in the introduction of the civil unions. ... Simple Simon has been exposed as immature, and his weakness is driving him towards the far-right wing of his party, thus he is now even more conservative than GONEZI, as if anyone have imaged that a few months ago. DeMarco is a cool guy with a level head. PN would do well to heed his advice if it wants to win back lost votes, but if Busuttil is only playing to the conservative wing expect their votes to shrink even more. ... Malta needs a good opposition, and they would do well to learn a lesson from how Joseph Muscat conducted this prior to the election: admitting mistakes and making constructive suggestions. Simply denying everything and blaming mistakes on your predecessors will show how weak and immature you are.
Is it possible that the supposed new?? recycled PN transformation consist only by being negative in every aspect the PL present? Before the election the main issue by the PN was just ridiculing the PL Promise of reducing the exaggerated high electricity Bills as a Cinderella? Now,that the PL showed how and will.The pn now eaten their words.Again they stopped in their tracks mentioning the Budget presented by the PL. How can those ex- nationalists be persuaded to go back,when this supposed renewed PN is still backing those ex-PN Ministers who were responsible for that PN wipe out.New PN = same old ideas, still antiquated mentality,AND STILL controlled by those evil from behind.
PN new faces??? Top photo??? What new faces>
Some advise to Simon: I can only believe him and his Party if I feel safe and secure with his party if Malta,my People, come first, definitely first, and only first. No EU, Not the PN, Not the Church, and No lies or half truths. We are No one`s idiots
Dr. Busuttil is the spare tyre until the true leader, as promised, is found to lead us to the promised land. PN MEP`S are patriotic citizens of the EU and not first for Malta .
We cannit vote for PN candidates for MEP's. They will support EU and not Malta in the imigration cause. Do not trust them. They are onky good in opposition and back ti square one if they are in power.