‘Renewal’ is watchword in vibrant PN leadership contest

PN MPs Chris Said and Claudio Grech being touted as potential leaders, Clyde Puli not excluding a run for the leadership 

PN MPs Chris Said and Claudio Grech are being touted as potential leaders
PN MPs Chris Said and Claudio Grech are being touted as potential leaders

A battle of ‘old’ and ‘new’ is squaring up in the Nationalist Party, with MPs and new faces taking counsel from trusted aides and activists as to whether they should throw their hat in the ring.

But “renewal” is the watchword in a party that will see a leadership race across its entire executive and administrative councils, after losing a snap election called by Joseph Muscat, who won the day with an unprecedented, second consecutive 36,000 vote majority.

It is a wide open space, even though key leadership contenders seem to be unchanged: both former minister Chris Said and Claudio Grech, are set on a course to become PN leaders.

Former junior minister Clyde Puli, 47, is another name not excluding a run for the leadership.

“I am considering everything… I’m thinking of what probable formations there can be in place, with enough experience to present a challenge [to Labour]. Am I inclined to consider any one of the possible openings? Yes,” Puli, a sociology lecturer, declared.

Puli was especially forthcoming on how he views the PN’s place in the “radical centre” of the political spectrum if it is to present itself as a real opposition to Labour.

“We have to remain a centrist party, but the challenge is to actually mean something. We should be proud of our roots and identity as anti-colonialist party. We should temper liberalism with the social spirit of our Christian-democratic identity… I fear that a strong sense of individualism taking root in Malta could endanger the social welfare that we tend to take for granted.”

Outsiders touted for top job

In comments to MaltaToday last week, Gozitan MP Chris Said, a former minister who took over as secretary-general in 2013, did not exclude submitting his candidature for party leader, saying he was considering his options, but said that it was not the right time to make any announcements. “I do not fear challenges,” he said.  

Adopting a similar wait-and-see stance is Nationalist MP Claudio Grech who was elected on the First District. “I have made no decisions. I’ll keep my options open,” he told MaltaToday Midweek.

“Many argue that the country requires a strong opposition. True, but we need to go beyond that. The country requires a robust and viable alternative to this government. People don’t vote for opposition but for government. Irrespective of my role, I am determined to give my time and effort into this process,” Grech said. 

But PN insiders who spoke to this newspaper have been eager to bandy ‘outsider’ names for the top post: names like those of lawyer and Birkirkara FC president Adrian Delia, and even PN radio tub-thumper David Thake. Now a contest that will be determined by the party’s 23,000 paid-up members, the PN’s leadership race is no longer a marathon of cocktail evenings with party delegates.

Delia, 47, was less inclined to commit himself for a stab at the leadership, even though he has been approached.

“It’s not something that I wish for or want,” the lawyer, a partner at former PN candidate Georg Sapiano’s firm, said. “I understand that there is a vacuum in the leadership, but I’m also a private citizen who is not in politics, with a family of five kids… crossing the chasm would be quite a step.”

And David Thake, 52, deputy mayor of St Paul’s Bay who narrowly missed a chance to become MP, has been adamant not to make any comment on his ambitions. Leadership or party executive role? “I have no comment to make,” he said, even though two party insiders made it a point to mention Thake as a possible player in the coming elections.

Eyes have also been set on the Debono power couple: Kristy Debono has been returned to the House with a remarkable 4,029 first preference votes, while husband Jean-Pierre, a former assistant secretary-general, clinched the last seat on the seventh district without reaching the quota, with over 3,300 votes. Kristy Debono could not be reached by phone yesterday.

Jason Azzopardi, one of the few former ministers kept on the frontbench by Busuttil, is one of the MPs being pushed to take a step forward and consider the deputy leadership role for parliamentary affairs.

“From day one of the 2013 administration, he has been doing what Mario de Marco should have effectively being doing,” a former Nationalist minister, who supports Azzopardi’s bid, told this newspaper.

Azzopardi, 46, entered into campaigning mode soon after the 2013 drubbing, becoming a vocal critic of Labour’s egregious governance record. “He has certainly been effective in most of the issues he brought forward: army promotions, the GWU lease, and he followed through on Café Premier and Gaffarena… he took ownership of all these issues and was unrelenting in his representation of the PN stand.”

The Catholic MP has voted against divorce in the past but followed Busuttil in abstaining on the recognition of same-sex unions in 2014.

A possible contender for the deputy leadership for party affairs is Marthese Portelli, a former president of the PN’s executive committee, who in the last legislature had the unenviable task of shadowing transport, environment and planning, and also energy affairs – four different ministries.

But Portelli has made it clear she is weighing all her options for any leadership post.

“I have support coming in from both within the party and also from outside the party. That has made me sit down and think deeply as to where I can contribute to make the PN once again the natural party of choice for people.

“I’ve never shied away from a challenge… if there is a role in which I can help, I will go for it. After hearing out some people who have encouraged me, I have paused to consider the challenge.” 

The other crucial post for the party is that of secretary-general, a role that has always attracted heavyweights who went on to become ministers like Louis Galea, Austin Gatt and Lawrence Gonzi, and strong organisers like Joe Saliba.

While Nationalist MEP David Casa has already declared he will run for secretary-general, there is clamour inside the party’s political circles to push Siggiewi mayor Karol Aquilina, 38, to contest the post.

“He was born to be secretary-general,” a party insider said, quipping that Aquilina’s DNA is that of the quintessential Nationalist political organiser. “It is a campaigning role that requires both organisational skills and political mastery. But its visibility suffered under Rosette Thake.”

Aquilina, who has just resigned his post as president of the administrative council, a position held since 2011, told MaltaToday he did not exclude running for the post.

“Although I resigned my post on the administrative council, I am considering the advice of those who say I could give my contribution in other roles,” Aquilina said.

Another possible contender for the secretary-general’s role is Aquilina’s own predecessor, Pierre Portelli.

But the Malta Independent’s director of content has stated he is keen on keeping leading his newspaper, even though Portelli has never been too far off from taking up a greater role inside the PN.

“My job is in the private sector right now,” Portelli said, indicating he would not abdicate his duties until a clearer picture of the PN leadership emerges.

But he is aware that if there was a time, this could be the ideal moment. “In the past I have had to put my family first. If you cannot give your full commitment to a post, then it’s not for you. But it is possible that these times are more encouraging,” he said.

According to The Malta Independent, PN candidate and teacher Justin Schembri is also interested in the post.

More in National

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition