[ANALYSIS] Adrian Delia: The PN leader with an impossible task?

Since becoming PN leader Adrian Delia has failed to make inroads with Labour voters or past PN voters: does it mean the PN needs a new leader? And will the 17 Black bombshell be his golden opportunity to affirm his leadership or will it strengthen his internal critics?

Adrian Delia flanked by David Agius (left) and Clyde Puli (right)
Adrian Delia flanked by David Agius (left) and Clyde Puli (right)

Many of the problems the Nationalist Party is facing today predate the leadership of Adrian Delia, a lawyer who took the party’s helm as an outsider in the first leadership election opened up to paid-up members.

There is still an identity question the PN has never resolved when it took Malta into the European Union in 2004, but remained deprived of a rallying call to keep different voters under its big-tent party. It was a problem that was aggravated when Labour leader Joseph Muscat set up his own big tent in which even former PN voters could find their place.

The massive drubbing of 2013, in which Labour won by an unprecedented 36,000 vote majority, was followed by the election as leader of Simon Busuttil. Busuttil tried to short-circuit the PN’s identity problem by raising the stakes on corruption and good governance. It was a legitimate and pertinent issue as confirmed by the latest bombshell that 17 Black belonged to Yorgen Fenech of Tumas Group a key peg in the government’s post 2013 energy equation. Yet Busuttil often strayed from the facts at hand by overplaying his case on Egrant, in the process winning some voters from the other side but failing to stop the haemorrhage to Muscat’s party.

The end result was Busuttil being defeated by the same margin as in 2013.

So what happened when Adrian Delia took the party helm? Even he shelved the PN’s identity question, hoping his change in delivery and leadership style, one that is “nearer to the people”, would do the trick. He could empathise with voters with his everyman shtick at the village festas, reaching out to people who came to view the PN as a party of detached elitists.

But while Delia may be less hated by Labour voters than Busuttil was – even earning their sympathy after his marital problems were first revealed in Manuel Delia’s blog – nobody seems to have changed their political allegiance. Neither has Delia made many inroads by pandering to migration concerns. And his more conservative agenda on moral issues has further alienated liberals in his own party.

In short: the PN still lacks a strategy that keeps the grassroots motivated while also making inroads among floaters and middle-of-the-road voters who opted for Labour in past elections.

Despite being more down to earth and affable than his predecessor, Delia has not managed to motivate former PN voters back to the fold, while the perception that he is less focused on Busuttil’s anti-corruption agenda risks alienating a chunk of PN voters who were given a sense of purpose by the former leader’s crusades.

The latest revelations on 17 Black provide Delia a golden opportunity to affirm his leadership. For the PN leader can now challenge Muscat directly on a major scandal with confirmed facts rather than speculation. While this case may strengthen the faction around Busuttil which may feel vindicated, Delia may well prove himself by  standing his ground and calling on the government to shoulder political responsibility simply because the facts at hands are damning enough to warrant resignations. Delia’s first reaction to the 17 Black revelations in a press conference on Friday, was a step in the right direction; a strong and prudent reaction based on facts at hand without any unnecessary accusations and speculation.

But the most crucial category the PN must win, is a sizeable segment of MOR voters who do not see the PN as a viable alternative in government: they conjure the image of the PN’s parliamentary group as a cabinet of ministers, and they are instantly unconvinced they could do a better job than Labour.  Crying wolf over scandal may not be enough for the PN to get there. Now more than ever, with the government reeling from the latest scandal, the PN needs to strengthen its front bench.

Rushing to elect a new leader

One crucial mistake after the 2017 election was the PN’s rush for a leadership contest without first determining what the values and aspirations of both its restricted pool of voters and those who left it, are.

Instead of resolving these issues under an interim leader that could have presented its future leader with a to-do list, the PN rushed to elect a new leader in the hope that being legitimised by a democratic election among party members, charisma and strength would simply carry the day.

And indeed, that contest – after failing to attract established candidates with an aspiration to become Prime Minister – touted names like MEP Roberta Metsola or MP Claudio Grech who failed to throw their hat into the ring.

Outsider Adrian Delia presented himself as an insurgent ready to leader a party nobody – except the MP Chris Said – wanted, fashioning his leadership bid as a recovery mission far more difficult than Eddie Fenech Adami’s in 1978. The sheer weight of the historical task before him would have broken the most experienced politician, let alone a newbie like Delia.

And now that problem is compounded by the poor quality of the party’s parliamentary front bench, the failure of 2017 voters to inject new blood on the PN’s benches, the lacklustre deputy leaders elected by the same cohort of Delia’s supporters, and the party’s failure to generate new policies in the past months.

Going into 2019, the party may have succeeded in attracting valid candidates for next May’s European elections, but it still lacks the sense of teamwork which has characterised Labour’s winning streak since 2008. Now perceived as a party of losers, the PN fails in attracting those who are interested in riding the winners’ cart.

And a clash has emerged between idealists and ‘down to earth’ pragmatists that understand the need to compromise with big business’s influence on Maltese politics. Here Simon Busuttil’s sanctimony backfired: for even he cohabited with the ugly reality of underhand party financing when it was revealed that PN salaries were being funded by the same DB group he accused of collusion with government.

Still, success in politics is also based on standing up for something  and being able to compromise without tainting the overall political mission. The PN can’t afford to be perceived as more of the same on issues like environmental protection and good governance, where the current government is failing in an otherwise positive economic context. This why Delia can’t afford to take away the heat from the government on these issues.

But the PN today has yet to define the boundaries on which the next big-tent party will be built. Is it going to fish for votes from the political centre-ground, perhaps even reaching out to social progressives on the left? Or will it just go on a wild chase for populist votes from the right?

So the question for the PN’s movers and shakers looms large: Delia may not have done much to resolve his party’s problems, but removing him in a quick-fix solution could backfire without a clear will to shake-up the PN’s internal structure and thinking process.

Unless Delia calls it a day of his own accord, it is extremely unlikely that his leadership will be challenged before the 2019 MEP elections.

How Delia tackles the latest scandal related to 17 Black is a major test for his leadership abilities. If he manages to unite the party by standing strong without overplaying his hand, he may well kick-start a long process of recovery.

But if he wastes this opportunity he may well end up being overtaken by internal critics in his own party.

Even then, the absence of a stock-taking exercise and without a team of candidates espousing a clear vision, the party will fail to reverse the downturn. Delia may either stay on to fill the void or he can do something more substantial and start a long process of renewal.