[ANALYSIS] The PN’s quest for a battle-cry: what does it stand for?

Now trounced in two consecutive elections, the Nationalist Party faces a crucial question: What does it stand for? JAMES DEBONO speaks to three PN representatives and explores the PN’s elusive search for identity

New leader Adrian Delia has offered some clues on his party’s new identity, which are more in tune with social conservatives on issues like abortion and the defence of life from conception, and with popular concerns on security and immigration
New leader Adrian Delia has offered some clues on his party’s new identity, which are more in tune with social conservatives on issues like abortion and the defence of life from conception, and with popular concerns on security and immigration

After shedding its elitist past in the 1970s, the PN has never been short on unifying battle cries, which helped transform the party into a broad church anchored in the centre-ground of Maltese politics. Big issues like ensuring majority rule, liberalising the economy and joining the EU dominated the agenda of the party led by Eddie Fenech Adami. This and a reputation for economic competence gave the party the edge over a Labour Party plagued by memories of Mintoffian autarky.

Yet since EU membership the party has found itself facing a crisis of identity, which was only postponed by a wafer-thin majority in 2008 against a Labour Party still led by the eurosceptic Alfred Sant.

Labour’s transformation under Muscat into a more business-friendly and socially liberal party, and his appeal to different segments of PN voters broke the PN’s long-standing hegemony. By moving deep into PN territory – taking the guise of a socially liberal version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s PN, Muscat has deepened the PN’s crisis.

From Busuttil to Delia

Under former MEP Simon Busuttil the PN tried to broaden its appeal by adopting good governance as its battle-cry, which has been at least in part vindicated by the latest Daphne Project revelations. Yet while this may have attracted back some floaters and Labour voters disappointed by Panamagate, Labour still managed to win by the same margin as in 2013, having consolidated its reputation as a good manager of the economy and thus attracting more former PN voters.

“After its second consecutive drubbing and an internal acrimonious process in nominating its top brass, the party is not only experiencing an identity crisis related to what the party really stands for, but alas also an existential unease,” says Albert Buttigieg, the PN’s outspoken deputy mayor in St Julian’s, when asked about his party’s quest for a new identity.

After struggling to cement his leadership and with the party still prone to divisions which erupt from time to time, new leader Adrian Delia has offered some clues on his party’s new identity, which are more in tune with social conservatives on issues like abortion and the defence of life from conception, and with popular concerns on security and immigration.  But Delia still struggles on issues like IVF where the party’s pro-life stance comes in conflict with the realities faced by childless couples.

Mark Anthony Sammut
Mark Anthony Sammut

Going local

Some clues on the party’s future identity can be found in Delia’s emphasis on national identity vis-à-vis the growing number of foreign workers and the party’s increased concern with law and order, reflected in a recently approved document on local councils.

The document emphasises “the need for more security in our localities in the face of a wave of crime affecting certain areas” and refers to “fundamental demographic changes” affecting local communities. The document steers away from far rightist rhetoric and advocates integration but expects foreign communities “to understand, participate and adapt to local traditions.”

But in line with the party’s centrist orientation it also emphasises “subsidiarity, solidarity, devolution of power and the protection of the most vulnerable” as the party’s perennial values. It calls for “ring-fenced” social expenditure at local level and a devolution of power through greater funding for local councils.

Clearly the party is ticking concerns emerging from surveys measuring popular concern which show how people are more worried than even over foreign workers, traffic, crime and over development.

Michael Briguglio (right)
Michael Briguglio (right)

Tapping the immigration concern

Yet although tempting for any Opposition party, tapping the concern on foreign residents and workers may also be tricky for a party that in the past has always stood for openness and a rejection of xenophobia.

The Opposition may find itself walking on a tight-rope between addressing popular concerns and reaching out to the business community, which includes segments that benefit from rampant construction and, from the availability of foreign workers at both ends of the labour market. Delia himself was reminded of this reality during a visit to Farsons during which he was told that without foreign workers the company would not have been able to cope with last year’s export demands.

Yet concern on the social, environmental and infrastructural problems caused by a rapid and unplanned increase in population (an increase of 40,000 between 2012 and 2016) cannot be dismissed as sheer racism but may reflect concerns on rising rents and the presence of seasonal migrants with little sense of belonging.

Gudja councillor and PN candidate Mark Anthony Sammut conjures an alternative vision which taps on the present-day concerns of the Maltese. “This government has furthered economic growth not by finding new industries or new niches which provide more high-paying jobs; it has furthered it by encouraging an influx of low-paid foreign workers.”

He asks whether Malta’s economic prosperity can be solely based on raising our population, with all its negative effects on our quality of life, infrastructure, traffic congestion, pollution, increasing rate of criminality and strain on the environment.

But if it chooses to tick the migration box, the PN may be opening a can of worms. For while Mark Anthony Sammut manages to express this sentiment in a sober way, others may find themselves threading on xenophobia as soon as they open their mouth on the issue.

Carm Mifsud Bonnici
Carm Mifsud Bonnici

Delivering prosperity

One pitfall for the Opposition is that merely exploiting the new concerns of the public does not cancel the need to reassure the public that it will continue delivering on the economic front if elected to government in four years’ time.

In fact Muscat’s greatest accomplishment so far has been that of dispelling old Labour’s bad reputation when it came to managing the economy and in creating wealth and jobs.

Mark Anthony Sammut is aware that this narrative needs to be beefed up by an economic programme. His party’s “alternative path to prosperity” is one based on “restoring the country’s reputation” in a way that can attract “new industries providing high-paying jobs” where growth is spurred by “higher wages rather than more workers.”

In this way the party can tap “the main concerns of many: of the workers in precarious work conditions, of the environmentalists worried by unabated development, of those worried about corruption at the very heart of Castille and political intrusion in our institutions, of those worried about how values, including human life, are being given second or no priority”.

And vital to the success of this project, is “to keep increasing our contact with the people, as we and our leader, Adrian Delia, have been doing over the past months.”

People first

One major shortcoming in Busuttil’s good governance narrative was that it appeared out of synch with popular aspirations for material prosperity. This was accentuated by his own deficiencies in communicating his message, crippled by the baggage inherited from previous Nationalist administrations.

Sammut insists that under Delia the party already has a battle cry: “People First”.

“Our focus is to become again the voice for the weak and downtrodden, for those who are being left behind while the frenzy of a ‘booming economy’ ploughs ahead, for those who are hidden behind numbers and percentages which are increasingly showing greater disparity, greater inequality, and a rise in poverty.”

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, a Nationalist MP and former Home Affairs Minister, rejects the need of an overriding battle cry.

He insists that the party’s priority should be to become relevant, politically credible and focused on regaining “popular trust”.

He thinks that the party’s Christian democratic roots can be made relevant for our age. “No, we do not need a single message or battle cry but an electoral programme which we can implement and to get there we need to initiate a process of dialogue with Maltese society.”

The former minister insists that while big projects can be important, what the party needs most is to focus “on those small steps which directly touch people and make a difference in their daily life.” Crucial to this process is “humility, simplicity and wisdom.”

Subsidiarity could, in fact, become one of the PN’s battle-cries as suggested by Michael Briguglio’s “bigger society, smaller government” mantra during last week’s General Council in a speech where he advocated greater devolution of power to local councils and the voluntary sector. Yet in the UK the “big society” advocated by the liberal conservative coalition was rendered toxic by cuts in public expenditure. Ultimately devolution also depends on government spending, which in turn depends on economic prosperity.

Albert Buttigieg
Albert Buttigieg

A European upgrade

One major dilemma for the party under Delia is how to remain home to both those who want the party to become more in synch with the electorate, and those who harp on good governance as an overriding issue, especially in view of the fact that these issues continue to dominate the news cycle especially after the damning revelations of the DaphneProject which vindicated Busuttil’s case against Minister Konrad Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri.

“Sadly, the Panama-Pilatus Bank debacle, the horrendous assassination of a leading investigative journalist, the everlasting sleaze culture and the systematic meltdown of institutions goes to prove this degeneration,” insists Albert Buttigieg who also warns the party “against any temptation of becoming carbon-copy of its counterpart.”

Faced by a Labour party which Buttigieg describes as “a slick neo-liberal customer care agency”, the PN needs to stand for something nobler and different

“Whilst the party needs to come to terms with today’s socio-economic dynamics and aspirations, it must remain the catalyst of those very fundamental underlying values which stimulated our success stories, mostly the values of social justice, equality, human dignity, solidarity, environmental sensitivity, business ethics and good governance.”

Buttigieg has taken a firm stance on over development in his locality. In a recent article he wrote that the Nationalist Party needs to choose on which side of the fence it wants to sit. He also recently expressed his anguish at seeing the “Nationalist Party – which in the recent past tried hard to redeem itself from past environmental blunders when in office – voting in favour of both the Mercury House and Villa Rosa mega projects”.

Buttigieg’s criticism seems to have hit home, with PA board representative Marthese Portelli voting against the Kalanka development and a proposed petrol station in Luqa in subsequent votes.

Buttigieg makes an important point by harping on the need to “inspire” by taking credible stances on the issues that matter. “If the party aspires to lead, then it needs to inspire,” says Buttigieg who proposes a “European upgrade” as the party’s new core message.

“From a mere European member state we need to deliberate and act truly with a European mindset. The politics of ‘u ejja’ (come on), where the unjustified is justified and embraced, is leading to a democratic and ethical deficit… The Nationalist Party needs to be bold once more and be a beacon of politics with a big ‘P’.”

Faced by a Labour party which Buttigieg describes as “a slick neo-liberal customer care agency”, the PN needs to stand for something nobler and different.

Yet faced by polls confirming Muscat’s popularity, the party cannot afford to be too dismissive of Labour’s considerable accomplishments over the past five years. Neither can it ignore popular concerns which include environmental concerns championed by the likes of Albert Buttigieg.

For the PN, the main challenge remains how to win back the edge it once had as a credible party in synch with popular common sense.