The old game Adrian Delia must play: hunting with the hounds and running with the hares

Getting the right mix of candidates to represent the different aspirations of the Nationalist Party’s electorate may well be Adrian Delia’s secret for survival in the wake of survey results that still show a big gap with Joseph Muscat's Labour Party

Surveys show that a large segment of PN voters still does not trust Adrian Delia. But to narrow the gap he needs to win back voters who voted Labour in the past two elections. How can Delia reach out to the middle ground while winning back the trust of PN voters who may doubt his commitment to good governance?

Delia is the first PN leader to be elected with a mandate from members who voted for him despite allegations of impropriety leveled by slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose murder had interrupted his honeymoon. Despite winning most internal contests, he is still snubbed by a majority of PN voters.

What the surveys show

The latest MaltaToday survey shows that while only 34% of PN voters in the last general election trust Delia more than Muscat, 56% would still vote for the PN. This suggests that a segment of voters who do not trust Delia would still vote PN.

READ MORE: MaltaToday Trust Barometer: Delia shows slight improvement as Muscat loses traction

Yet 36% of PN voters are undecided or intent on not voting. Winning over this sector is vital for Delia’s survival in his first electoral test: MEP elections next year. Of major significance is the fact that the hemorrhage of voters from the PN to Labour has not stopped after the 2017 defeat; nearly a tenth of voters who voted PN in the last election will now vote Labour.

Yet the silver lining for Delia is that an equal percentage of PL voters in 2017 will now vote PN. Moreover the survey suggests that Delia has gained some traction in deep red territory; the southern harbour district where his trust rating rises to nearly 20% -5 points higher than his national score.

This suggests that Delia can make inroads among Labour voters but any gains on this front are offset by disillusion in the PN electorate. On the other hand Muscat is facing the first boats of disillusion in his own electorate. In fact his 42% score (down from 51%) suggests a return to pre-election trust ratings.

What the reshuffle shows

The survey throws a light on the logic behind Delia’s latest chess moves. By elevating Simon Busuttil to party spokesperson on governance, he is sending a message to that segment of Nationalist voters, who do not trust him but still see a reference point in the former leader. Delia’s intention seems that of keeping Busuttil in the team, by offering him space to keep pressing the government on corruption.

READ MORE: How Delia’s reshuffled PN bench compares to Muscat’s Cabinet

Yet the risk is that Delia will be paralysed in his parallel bid to reach out to the mass of voters who in 2017 still voted Labour despite accusations of corruption and impropriety. If these voted Labour after Panamagate, why would they change their mind now? And if Panamagate did not sway their vote, with the economy going strong, what would?

The elusive middle ground

The problem for Delia is that the middle ground he seeks is far from a homogenous category of voters. For example any moves to attract big business back to the party not only meets rebuke from the ‘Daphne crowd’ but also from moderates, including Labour voters, who tend to express concern on environmental issues. Delia may be tempted to toy with issues like law and order and migration but this also risks splitting his own base.

So far Delia has been strongest in symbolic gestures like eating pastizzi in a titotla-meant to exorcise the party’s elitism- and addressing daily life issues like an unpaved road in Zejtun. Delia may also shore up his internal support by appealing to moral conservatism but this may be off-putting to Middle of the road voters. By pandering to social conservatives Delia risks being perceived by these voters as out of touch with modern realities as clearly illustrated by the way a motion against granting five extra days of leave to IVF patients seeking treatment abroad backfired on Delia’s PN. And while surveys show that a majority is against abortion, creating a debate about a non-issue may be seen as an act of desperation. 

On Zonqor point he may have struck a chord with environmentalists but this will only make any compromises on other issues harder to stomach. Moreover with the economy going strong, the major government failure remains good governance, an issue, which has dropped from the top concerns of the electorate but which inevitably dominates the new cycle. Delia also has to be careful not to lose a segment of PL voters and floaters who voted for Busuttil’s ‘Forza Nazzjonali” because of Panamagate, even if these were offset by a greater number of PN voters who had voted Gonzi in 2013 and Muscat in 2017.  In the absence of an effective battle cry, which keeps a diverse coalition united, Delia risks paralysis.

Weighed down by personal baggage

Further complicating matters is personal baggage including his failure to regularise his tax position before becoming leader. This exposes him to the criticism that he is not speaking enough on the government’s corruption because he is colluding with government to solve his own personal problems. On the other hand any praise from the government side tends to further weaken Delia’s appeal among PN voters. This increases the pressure on Delia to sound militant and thus risks further alienating middle of the road voters who recoil from him when he is aggressive. Perhaps Delia should learn to express justified anger on dodgy deals like Vitals without sounding divisive.

The MEP election test

What Delia could be hoping for is that his problems will be exorcised by a good campaign in the forthcoming MEP elections. Campaigns can indeed be oxygen to embattled leaders, like Jeremy Corbyn, who were previously condemned by the polls. Unlike Busuttil, Delia can actually build a human connection with voters. Yet MEP elections, in which voters are free to vote for anyone without worrying about who gets elected to government may be unpredictable. One risk for the PN would be competition from third party candidates who may appeal either to the angry “Daphne crowd” or to middle of the road vote or to a mix of both. Getting the right mix of candidates to represent the different aspirations of the PN’s electorate may well be Delia’s secret of surviving for another day, fully knowing that MEP elections are an opportunity for Muscat to vanquish the Opposition.