2015: The year of reckoning for Busuttil

PN leader Simon Busuttil still lags behind Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in public opinion but will 2015 be the year in which the opposition will transform itself into a credible alternative to Muscat’s government?

In three years’ time the Nationalist Party will go into the general election knowing that regaining power is well beyond its reach, unless Joseph Muscat’s government presses the self-destruct button.

However, 2015 could be a pivotal year for PN leader Simon Busuttil in his quest to regain the people’s trust and convince the electorate that the opposition is a viable alternative to Muscat’s government. 

This will not lead to a PN victory in 2018 but if Busuttil is successful in achieving these targets, the opposition will gradually knock Muscat off his perch and be in a better position to give the Prime Minister a good run for his money five years later.

However, regaining the people’s trust – starting with the PN’s core supporters – and defining the party’s ethos requires patience and audacity. 

Busuttil emerged from the year which has just ended as a stronger leader than he was when the PN got another trouncing in the European elections the previous May. Ironically the defeat strengthened Busuttil’s position in the party and in recent months, especially his reaction to the shooting incident which led to then home affairs minister Manuel Mallia’s resignation, the PN leader grew in stature and in confidence. 

But benefitting from the government’s blunders is one thing and regaining the lost trust is another. The brownie points scored in the wake of Malliagate will go up in smoke unless Busuttil offers strong leadership and takes ownership of issues which the electorate can relate to. 

However, overcoming Muscat’s ostensible invincibility is no easy task and regaining the people’s trust is intrinsically linked to the government’s performance. With thousands of voters switching to Labour for the very first time in March 2013, voters will not be easily swayed into being convinced that they made the wrong choice. 

Yet as shown by the downfall of the Nationalist Party in 2013, Labour’s seemingly hegemonic force is not eternal, and Muscat’s “politics without adversaries” will one day implode. The question is whether the PN and Busuttil will be ready to govern and how soon the electorate will be willing to trust the opposition again.

Busuttil’s recent showings at the PN’s convention in October and his Budget speech have shown that he is growing in the role and his performances exuded a newly found confidence. 

But that alone will not win Busuttil any votes. There is an eerie feeling among the PN’s core support that Busuttil’s backroom staff is inadequately equipped to counter Muscat’s tactical moves, which over the last five years have unremittingly caught the PN off-guard and exposed the opposition strategists’ ineptitude. 

The PN’s mock sticker album of government appointments and the opposition’s decision to abstain in the civil unions bill epitomised the party’s weak political shrewdness and Busuttil’s lack of leadership respectively.

The former strategy showed why the PN has not managed to wash away the perception that some of the party’s longstanding strategists who still run the show believe that the PN has a God given right to govern the country and attribute the mammoth 2013 defeat to Muscat’s trickery rather than the PN’s shortcomings. However, the 2013 election showed that not only the PN is no longer superior to Labour when it comes to winning elections and governing the country but it has lost the moral high ground it once had a claim to. 

Tactics will only convince voters to turn their back on Labour and tilt the balance in favour of the PN if Labour makes a mess in other sectors, especially the economy. But the probability of that happening any time soon is nigh impossible and if the PN persists with such moves it will only reinforce the perception that it is clutching at straws.

On the other hand, the decision to abstain in the civil unions bill exposed Busuttil’s inexperience and ill judgement. Not only did he allow the party to be perceived as being in the clutches of the conservative faction but he also missed an opportunity to shape the party’s ethos. 

Busuttil might well be the first leader since Gorg Borg Olivier who is more comfortable being termed as a liberal rather than as a conservative. But so far he has failed to articulate his vision and convince the conservative majority within the party that the PN must transform itself into a more socially liberal party. 

While Muscat has made an art out of articulating contradictory social-democratic, socialist, neo-liberal, liberal and nationalistic discourses, the PN must come up with an alternative built on a coherent narrative which is representative of the diverse ideological currents within the party. 

Despite the damage incurred over the last decade, the PN and Busuttil must provide an authentic narrative that appeals to the masses while maintaining a dose of intellectual honesty. 

The PN’s claim to be “honest” or at least more honest than the Labour government remains just a claim and in order to convince that the PN is a better alternative than Labour, the opposition must eat humble pie and ring the necessary changes as Muscat did upon being elected Labour leader in 2008. 

Local election test

2015 will offer Busuttil with a series of opportunities which he could either grasp and take leadership in or else let yet another ship sail out of harbour. Firstly, the party will be presented with another electoral test in the local elections.

Conspicuously, the government’s plans to postpone the 2015 local elections were shelved thanks to the opposition’s criticism and pressure but now the PN must stop the haemorrhage and ensure that it does not suffer another electoral drubbing. 

Three years ago Labour won almost 56% of the vote and obtained a majority of councillors in 19 localities out of 35. On the other hand the Nationalist Party obtained 41.8% and Alternattiva Demokratika 1.9%. 

In the 2012 round of elections, which unlike this year included PN stronghold Sliema, Labour obtained 15,341 votes more than the PN and won a majority in two important localities for the very first time, namely St Paul’s Bay and Qala. 

Normally, parties in government fare badly in mid-term elections but the majority of the 34 localities are Labour leaning and the PN would do well to shorten the gap and score important victories in St Paul’s Bay, Mosta and Qala. 

This would dent Muscat’s mantra of invincibility and help the opposition gain some momentum going into the 2018 general election, however, if the PN suffers another drubbing and doesn’t make any inroads in what was previously perceived as the PN’s natural voting base, further uncertainty will creep in the party’s grassroots and Busuttil’s position will be in the balance. 

Referendum quandary 

In all probability, the local elections will be held together with the referendum on spring hunting which could result in the removal of the spring hunting season. So far, Busuttil has been very cautious on the matter and has refused to commit himself. 

Understandably, Busuttil is reluctant to turn the referendum into a political showdown between the two major parties, because if the government and Muscat are forced into taking a position and mobilise Labour supporters, it would be hard to envisage a victory for the anti-spring hunting campaign. 

However, this could be a perfect opportunity for Busuttil to shape the party’s ethos and place the party squarely on the same side of socially liberal voters. If he instead chooses to sit on the fence he will only enforce the notion that the PN is a soulless party which is petrified and immobilised by the fear to ring the changes.  

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca

Constitutional reform

One issue the PN can take ownership of is Constitutional reform, which both major parties promised in their electoral programmes. The PN could start by making a series of proposals in Parliament to change the process through which public appointments are made. Another issue the PN can make its own is the employment of MPs, who instead of being employed on government boards should be given institutional roles in parliamentary committees grilling government ministers, CEOs, chairpersons and regulators over their annual work. 

Busuttil could also advocate the introduction of digital rights, the revision of Malta’s neutrality clause and a thorough reform in the police force and the AFM. 

If Busuttil wants to prove his doubters wrong and sustain his clichéd claim that he wants to do politics differently, the PN should support electoral reform which would allow third parties to take a real shot at being elected in Parliament.

The two-party system makes a mockery of modern European democracies which both Busuttil and Muscat claim to aspire to. The introduction of a reasonable threshold and proper cheques and balances which replace the occupation of the public sphere by both major parties would be a breath of fresh air which no political leader has yet had the audacity to exhale. 

Migration 

Following Malliagate, Muscat childishly threatened the opposition of exposing its skeletons and in a bid to deviate public attention, the government issued a report on the death of Mamadou Kamara, an asylum seeker who was beaten to death by detention officers.

The report revealed that former home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici prevented disciplinary proceedings against Detention Services officers involved in the death of an escaped asylum seeker, a year before the Kamara murder. 

Contrary to Busuttil’s claims, the PN did not pay the price for the death of the migrants in the 2013 electoral trashing, but while Mifsud Bonnici is politically responsible for the death of another migrant in 2011 it is inconceivable to expect Busuttil to expel his MP from the party.

Instead, Busuttil could propose the creation of an ad hoc Parliamentary committee involving civil society and security services to reform the detention policy, which currently sees migrants locked up in inhumane conditions for up to 18 months. 

He would thus be taking initiative instead of allowing the government to take sole ownership of detention reform and the integration of migrants. 

Paul Sheehan (left) on the night of the incident, in the Tal-Qroqq tunnels
Paul Sheehan (left) on the night of the incident, in the Tal-Qroqq tunnels

‘Anything goes’ culture 

The PN leader has turned the “anything goes under Labour” claim into a battle cry, however the culture did not suddenly materialise in the wake of Labour’s 2013 electoral victory. 

Past PN governments were similarly given a lot of liberty by the electorate when it came to rampant construction and the annihilation of the countryside. A change in culture will not happen overnight upon the PN’s return to office and instead of lamenting the country’s laissez faire attitude which blossomed under consecutive governments, the opposition should concentrate on standing up for environmental justice, sever all ties with big businesses and understand that the contradictions of attempting to be everything to everyone will only lead to more political déjà vu. Renewal of personnel 

While Busuttil and his secretary-general, Chris Said, might have embarked on a plan to renew the party’s internal structures which could yield positive results in the coming years, the PN badly needs a generational change within its ranks.

On one hand Busuttil needs to rejuvenate his backroom staff, which is mostly made up of relics from the Gonzi administration, and on the other he needs to renew his parliamentary group. 

However while the former is completely within Busuttil’s control, the latter change is highly dependent on the electorate. However, the PN can shape its future Parliamentary group which is currently made up of a mixture of clever heavyweights, political dinosaurs, inept newbies and a few potential rising stars. 

This can be done by promoting new candidates, something which the party is already attempting to do with limited success, and sidelining MPs who might be popular but are well past their best.  

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil and deputy leader Mario de Marco (right)
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil and deputy leader Mario de Marco (right)

Centre-left?

In the latest PN general council, deputy leader Mario de Marco asked whether it was time for the opposition to become a centre-left party. Subsequently, in his New Year’s speech Busuttil claimed that he wants the PN to become a party which gives shelter to everyone and be open to people from all walks of life. 

However, giving space to disgruntled persons with the view of winning their vote is one thing and having coherent policies which safeguard social justice and advocate the rights of the invisible minorities such as migrants, workers in precarious jobs, people who cannot work due to physical and mental conditions and other social groups who are traditionally viewed as electorally expendable is another. 

If Busuttil is averse to turning the political duel into a presidential showdown with Muscat, he must tone down the antagonism and become a leader of a coalition of different ideas and movements without falling into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. 

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