[ANALYSIS] Adrian Delia's first year of internal consolidation and external decline

Long read • 1,511 words | PN leader Adrian Delia's achievements and failures assessed

Adrian Delia was elected PN leader by party members in September 2017
Adrian Delia was elected PN leader by party members in September 2017

Defiantly elected by the party’s rank and file despite the veto of the party’s establishment, Delia promised a “new way” that would make his party electable again.

His triumph in last year’s internal election, which saw party members voting for the first time for their leader, remains his greatest achievement so far. He barely had time for a honeymoon period when he was immediately faced with the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose legacy serves as a rallying point for his internal critics.

Still during the past year, Delia has managed to slowly but steadily consolidate his hold on party structures. He managed to carve a distinctive discourse aimed at ditching his party’s ‘elitist’ reputation and renew the party’s appeal beyond its upper middle-class strongholds.

But one year on he still trails in the polls, failing to make any inroads in Labour’s electorate, and even failing to convince a sizeable number of PN voters.

The general impression is that under his leadership the party is going backwards. Neither has he beefed his populist pitch with concrete policies. What has Delia achieved and failed to achieve in the past year?

Delia has tried to carve out an image of being a people's man
Delia has tried to carve out an image of being a people's man


1. Securing control of party structures

Delia loyalists now control strategic positions in the party’s internal structures.

These include Kristy Debono who was elected as president of the party’s General Council in a close contest which pitted her against former PN minister Censu Galea, and Clyde Puli, who was appointed to the post of general secretary and who was unchallenged.

Former Malta Independent director and one-time PN official Pierre Portelli has been appointed executive chairman of the party’s media.

While the parliamentary group remains divided, the party’s national executive is largely loyal to the new leader as are the party’s new deputy leaders Robert Arrigo and David Agius.

Delia also has managed to reconcile himself with former leadership contender Chris Said and the party’s list of MEP candidates includes relatively new faces like Peter Agius, Michael Briguglio, Frank Psaila and journalist Dione Borg, who individually represent different ideological hues but are loyal to Delia.

2. Carving his own distinctive pitch

One of the greatest problems facing the party under Lawrence Gonzi and even more so under Simon Busuttil was its failure to communicate with a segment of traditional PN voters, especially those hailing from southern districts and from a working class background. This has been reflected in a decline of the party in southern and western districts.

Delia’s election on its own represented a rapture, and resistance against Delia is partly explained by the sense of entitlement of the party’s old guard in the face of defiance by party members.

Delia had been defiant when asked to withdraw his candidature by an internal commission and by former leader Simon Busuttil following revelations by Daphne Caruana Galizia and later by MaltaToday related to a bank account opened in his name in Jersey.

As leader, Delia has tried to widen the party’s appeal by giving his party a more conservative imprint and emphasize issues related to identity and migration, which risks alienating other categories of more liberal PN voters. While this approach has so far not resulted in any advance in polling, it has given the party a distinctive mark. 

But unlike the party grandee Eddie Fenech Adami, who also pitched for working class votes, Delia has so far not moved his party to the left on social policy and he is more keen to emphasize identity issues than addressing problems like rising rents and growing inequality.

3. Making it clear that he is here to stay

Having strengthened his position in party structures it has become likelier that Delia will survive as leader irrespective of the result of MEP elections. Delia has repeatedly made it clear that he will remain leader even if his party fails to make any progress in next year’s election.

Moreover, Delia may blame internal dissent for his party’s failure to improve its fortunes in these elections, therefore using defeat to his benefit in a bid to further consolidate his rule.

Yet the European elections will be a major test for Delia’s campaigning abilities. If he fails miserably in restoring some enthusiasm in his party, he will end up surviving as a lame duck leader till the next general election. This may be why Delia is focusing on galvanising his core vote. In the knowledge that at this stage he cannot narrow the gap, let alone win the election, Delia may be focusing on building a strong and loyal core of support which will keep him at the helm to live another day. 

Getting to grips with mutinous MPs remains an uphill struggle
Getting to grips with mutinous MPs remains an uphill struggle


1. Quelling mutinous MPs

One lasting legacy of Caruana Galizia’s assassination in October was that of serving as a rallying point for Delia’s internal critics, which include a number of rebel MPs who are either lukewarm or hostile towards the new leader.

It also remains doubtful whether Delia is able to impose party strategy on key players like MEP David Casa and MPs like Jason Azzopardi. In the face of a mutiny involving at least 11 MPs, Delia backtracked on his call against former leader Simon Busuttil to suspend himself from the parliamentary group following the publication of the Egrant inquiry conclusions which failed to find evidence that the PM’s wife owned a secret company in Panama.

The rebellion was particularly worrying for Delia as it included MPs like Mario de Marco and Claudio Grech, who do not fit exactly in the Busuttil mold. Delia had already faced a mutiny by rebel MPs with regards to his opposition to a legal notice giving five days of leave to IVF patients seeking treatment abroad and to a domestic violence Bill for omitting any reference to the unborn child.

But even more dangerous than these ideological splits, which may be inevitable in a big-tent party like the PN, is his inability to control individual MPs who tend to shoot from the hip on a variety of issues. Yet these may also provide Delia with a scapegoat for a probable defeat in next year’s election.

2. Recovering lost ground

Delia’s greatest failure has been his miserable performance in the polls.

Polls suggest that the gap between the two parties is widening. This is because Delia is failing in a battle on two fronts. Successive MaltaToday surveys shows that while Labour retains most of its supporters, a substantial percentage of PN voters do not trust Delia and do not intend to vote.

On the other hand more PN voters are shifting to Labour than vice versa. This means that Delia is not only failing to make any inroads among Labour voters but is also losing support to abstention. This shows that Delia’s populist pitch has so far failed to earn his party any dividends but risks increasing losses to Labour especially if Muscat manages to present himself as being more moderate than Delia.

Also, the party’s attempts to counter Muscat’s neoliberalism may be crippled by attempts to reconnect with the business community while the perception that the PN is a divided party further weakens its appeal among voters.

The reality remains one where while Labour has entrenched itself in the political centre ground which was PN territory till just a few years ago, the PN remains in the wilderness clutching at straws.

3. Convince voters that the PN can govern 

Under Delia the PN is not perceived to be a government-in-waiting.

The problem for Delia is that his leadership team is even weaker than that of Simon Busuttil. While Busuttil was flanked by Beppe Fenech Adami and Mario de Marco, Delia is flanked by David Agius and Robert Arrigo, two successful constituency politicians who, however, lack the political depth of their predecessors.

When one considers that Busuttil’s team was itself weaker than that of Gonzi and Fenech Adami, one cannot help feeling that the PN is a party in decline. Delia is not to blame for this. The PN electorate did not renew the party in the last general election by electing a new dynamic front-bench.

One major weakness identified by former Labour leader Alfred Sant was that “talented individuals may be preferring to make the best of the present economic circumstances” rather than pursuing a political career within the PN.

4. Presenting new policies

Delia may have positioned his party on more populist positions on migration but fails to translate this pitch into an alternative programme for government.

In fact even Delia’s rants on migration tend to come in bouts which create ripples of controversy but which tend to dissipate as the PN leader struggles to reassure more moderate elements in his party that he is not lurching too much towards the right. 

This suggests that Delia is simply toying with populism and is not interested in changing his party’s DNA. The party has so far not come out with clear policies on taxation, the economy, good governance and environmental policies.

Delia still struggles to reconcile the different priorities and values of PN voters, let alone come with a message, which can win over new voters from the other side.