[ANALYSIS] PN leadership: A party on the beach?

The Nationalist Party’s new leader will be elected on 16 September, in time for the PN’s annual Independence Day festivities. Why the rush? asks James Debono

PN leader Simon Busuttil has repeatedly insisted he will step down
PN leader Simon Busuttil has repeatedly insisted he will step down

Nominations for the PN leadership will be open between 17 and 19 July, with an election set for 16 September in time for the party’s annual Independence Day celebrations, the party announced this week.

Effectively this means that the leadership contest – which for the first time will see rank and file members choose the party leader – will take place right in the middle of the holiday season, a time when many people are abroad, by the beach or in a detached mood. 

What does the party gain by rushing instead of waiting a few more months for the country to recover from electoral fatigue after an intense political season?

The discarded option

One option which according to PN sources was actively considered before the executive’s final decision was to appoint an interim leader who would harbour no future leadership ambitions but would steer the party through a phase of soul searching and rebuilding, before a leadership contest is convened some time in 2018.  

In this way the party would have got its new leader before the 2019 mid-term test but would have had enough time to analyze the defeat and thus choose a leadership which can address the reasons which led to it.   

Party veteran Louis Galea, the architect of the PN’s recovery in the late 1970s as Eddie Fenech Adami’s general secretary, was touted for the post.  

Another option was to keep Simon Busuttil as leader until his designate successor is chosen.  

The epochal change, which brought Eddie Fenech Adami to the helm of the party in 1977, also took place months after the 1976 defeat during which a diminished George Borg Olivier continued leading the party.

Had the party taken this path this time round, it would also have given more time for new potential contenders to emerge from outside restricted circles. 

This may have worked to the advantage of people like lawyer and Birkirkara Football Club supremo Adrian Delia and entrepreneur and general election candidate Ivan Bartolo, who have been touted for the post. It may also give more time to potential big guns like Roberta Metsola to assess the situation before entering the fray.  

In fact despite being initially less popular than the late Guido de Marco, Eddie Fenech Adami managed to upstage his rival to win and shift the party towards the centre left in its bid to attract more working class support.

A longer time frame would have also been more fitting for the first popular election of a PN leader. It would also have given the party the chance to elect its new leader in view of the results of pending inquiries on Panama company Egrant and Keith Schembri, something that would throw a better light on the party’s electoral campaign.

The advantage of going for it now

MEP Roberta Metsola has a solid following among PN supporters and has not ruled out running for party leader
MEP Roberta Metsola has a solid following among PN supporters and has not ruled out running for party leader

There are historical precedents for a quick succession process resulting in a successful turn of events. After losing by 1,500 votes in 2008 the Labour Party was quick to choose a replacement for Alfred Sant. Joseph Muscat was elected on June 6, just three months after the party’s electoral loss.  

Like Simon Busuttil, Sant was quick to resign but his role was temporarily occupied by Charles Mangion as interim leader.  Muscat’s election immediately gave his party a sense of direction, despite a highly charged contest involving strong personalities like George Abela, Michael Falzon, Evarist Bartolo and Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.

One notable difference is that the campaign was concluded before the summer lull, and the party had just lost an election by a very small margin.  

Moreover a fragile one-seat majority had just reconfirmed the PN in government. In this sense although disappointed, the Labour grass roots had victory in sight.

For the PN, the advantage of electing a new leader by September is that this would avoid months of speculation and potential infighting as tensions brew in anticipation of the decision. It is also based on the calculation that only a new leader can give direction to the party. So instead of focusing on the reasons why the party lost before the contest takes place, the party will give the party leader a blank cheque to change course.

Another advantage is that the government would not have the advantage of a prolonged honeymoon period during which the government would be able to ride roughshod over the opposition. This course of action also favours candidates, who already have strong roots in the party, which is vital to make it past the first round, which would see the list of candidates shortlisted to two.  

Yet this may be a mixed blessing for established candidates touted for the leadership, such as Chris Said and Claudio Grech. For their path to the leadership also depends on the mood among party delegates who will be short-listing the two candidates for the final face off. For the dynamics among delegates are different from those found among rank and file party members.  

But a quick election may favour established candidates with organised campaigning teams, while a long one could give a breathing space to candidates who still need time to become established or who are still assessing their position.

The disadvantages of a hurried decision

The major disadvantage is that the timing coincides with the summer lull. Rather than expecting party members to participate in a process of renewal in August, the PN’s executive seems keen on keeping the contest a more closed affair by choosing a time during which rank and file party members are more likely to be distracted from politics.  

Although containing the election to party structures is now impossible simply because the final choice will be taken by a popular vote, a summer campaign is more likely to be more subdued than one conducted after September.

One major disadvantage is that the party has lost a golden opportunity of setting its own direction by carrying a widespread exercise of public consultation, by meeting party organs, local councillors, NGOs and civil society in general.

One major issue of major concern in the party is that it has lost its traditional clout among the business community.

Big business and the PN

Ivan Bartolo of 6pm Ltd did not make it to the casual elections but is being mentioned as a worthy successor to Busuttil
Ivan Bartolo of 6pm Ltd did not make it to the casual elections but is being mentioned as a worthy successor to Busuttil

Within the party Simon Busuttil is also being blamed for keeping at arm’s length from businessmen pandering for his favour and for his poor handling of the db Group case, which saw him severing the party’s links with a major developer after the party had accepted money from him.  

In such a scenario the party may well be tempted to elect a more business friendly candidate like Claudio Grech, who is also known for his organisational skills and more street wise approach to politics. 

Surely despite presenting an ambitious tax cut for small businesses, the party still failed to strike a chord with this section of the electorate. This raises the question of whether policies alone can restore the trust of this segment of the electorate in the PN.

But the party’s relationship with big business is bound to raise problems for a party facing a government which not only panders to business but has more pork barrel to offer.

While there is some truth in the party failing to connect with the business community, the party cannot afford to lose the good will of civil society, especially if it distances itself from environmentalists and local communities who are on the receiving end of the current government’s pro business approach.  

Moreover the PN also attracts an electorate which gives more importance to environmental and quality of life issues. 

Losing these voters would be very problematic, especially in view of Marlene Farrugia’s inroads in the tenth district where she got elected.

It would also be forgetting that Busuttil’s main problem was that of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, thus failing to impress either big business or local communities when conflict arises. The party’s delayed response to the Townsquare project in Sliema was an example of this. 

For while PN local councillors were at the forefront in their opposition to the project, the PN was initially reticent to take a position.

Taking voters for granted

Not connecting to its present voters may be the PN’s greatest mistake. The worst assumption the PN can make now is to take for granted those who voted for it in this election.  

For just as Muscat was capable of attracting a sizeable chunk of 2013 PN voters to his party to compensate for an equally sizeable chunk of Labour voters who defected to the PN, the Labour party may well further undermine the PN’s base at the next election.  

The PN must be in a position of retaining its inroads among switchers and Labourites and possibly aim for making even more inroads in these categories, rather than embarking on an elusive chase for lost PN votes.  

This chase may remain elusive for the simple reason that the PL has re-invented itself as a centrist party, which looks towards the right on economic issues and to the left when it comes to civil liberties and to some extent on social welfare. On the other hand the PN remains neither here nor there.

Another major disadvantage the party faces is that its own election for leader has been derailed by Muscat’s declaration that he would be stepping down as party leader before the next election.

Frank Psaila - lawyer and Net TV presenter 

Frank Psaila
Frank Psaila

“The decision to appoint a PN leader in September is a correct one. Now calls for reflection, discerning on what went wrong and listening to people within and beyond the party. It would be wrong to rush the process to elect a new leader. However, the PN needs to make the most of the coming weeks to listen to the people. I took a personal initiative, and invited people to come forward and discuss with me their ideas and perspectives for the immediate, and long term future of the Nationalist Party. The feedback was very encouraging. I received hundreds of meeting requests. I shall present the findings to the new leadership. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether waiting till December 2017, if not beyond, to elect the deputy leaders and the rest of the party administration is the correct one. Once the new leader is in place, the process should be speeded up. It is pertinent that the new leader is surrounded by the right people - by which I mean, people who are able to reach out to different sectors of our society; are good organizers; street wise and doers. This is a fascinating time for the Nationalist Party, which badly needs to reconnect with the people if it wants to make itself electable again”.

Mark Anthony Sammut – PN candidate and local councillor

Mark Anthony Sammut
Mark Anthony Sammut

“The Nationalist Party needs enough time to discuss internally what went wrong and reflect on the attributes the new leader will require in order to draft the way forward. At the same time, it is also aware that the more time it stays on with a ‘caretaker’ administration (which will only be changed after the new leader is elected), the longer it will take for it to start the process of renewal and re-organisation in order to be able to mount a serious challenge to Labour at the next election.

“So I think the decision to elect the new leader by September is a good compromise between having enough time for reflection but not allowing this period of uncertainty to drag on for too long. This will also be the first time that the vote in the run-off between the final two contenders will see the participation of all party members, numbering around 23,000, which in itself is a process which requires some time to be logistically organised to ensure it is transparent and free from any form of abuse.”

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