Looking at 2019 | Can Adrian Delia survive as European elections beckon?

Polls show little sign of progress for Adrian Delia, whose family life is in turmoil and spilling onto the news pages… 2018 was not a good year for the PN leader, so will he survive this year’s European elections?

Adrian Delia
Adrian Delia

The latest MaltaToday polls have shown Adrian Delia gaining some traction among PN voters without in any way reducing the gap with Labour. But the year also ended with the PN leader facing more internal unrest after details of his marital separation proceedings were leaked on the social media.

The invasion of Delia’s privacy and family life right in the middle of the Christmas festivities may have attracted a degree of sympathy for the PN leader. For the exploitation of family difficulties by internal critics who had never accepted him as their leader since the day he was elected by party members, was akin to vultures circling over an injured target.

But the tide turned against the PN leader the moment allegations of domestic violence started making the rounds. Such a serious allegation cannot be easily dismissed as a private matter. Moreover, the vulnerability of Delia to accusations coming from his own family reinforces the view that Delia’s position as PN leader is no longer tenable.

Yet with Delia refusing to resign out of his own free will and in the absence of a leadership challenge which would see his rivals coming out in the open, the party seems resigned to face the mid-terms led by a lame duck.  

Mission impossible?

Even before the latest revelation on Adrian Delia’s family life, the odds were already stacked against the PN leader. Delia will face the inevitable comparison with 2014 when both parties won three seats each, but which Labour won by a 33,677 vote margin: the sixth seat was in fact close to being won by Labour, but it was retained by the PN after the last eliminated candidate’s second-preference votes were inherited by the PN, after a nail-biting contest with only 206 votes separating Therese Comodini Cachia and Clint Camilleri.

Also at stake is the party’s ability to hold onto majorities in key marginal localities like St Paul’s Bay, Mosta and Siggiewi or to make inroads in marginal seats held by ‘Labour-lite’ Birkirkara.  

Delia knows his internal opponents may well be banking on his failure in these elections. So far he has refused to set any targets for next May’s MEP and local elections, by this way not binding himself to resign if he fails to achieve a positive result for his party.
When asked whether he has any targets for these elections in an interview with MaltaToday in September he minimised the political value of these elections describing them as “a training ground” and limiting his aim to attracting “people to contest with the PN, which will show people that the party is changing.”

In an interview with Lovin Malta in June, PN leader Adrian Delia insisted that he won’t resign after next year’s MEP elections even if he loses by 100,000 votes. “We can lose the MEP election by 90,000 votes or we can lose it by 100,000 votes, we can win all the battleground local councils or we can lose them all, but I won’t even consider resigning. Politics isn’t a game,” Delia told his interviewer.

It was a clear message to those within the party who have not accepted him as party leader and who still hope that the party will replace him if he is thrashed by Muscat in next May’s election.

The risk for Delia is that PN voters who want him replaced by a new leader could be encouraged to abstain if Delia puts his leadership on the line in these elections. On the other hand, these voters may well be brought in line by the fear of Muscat extending his lead in a way which may well extinguish any hope for a PN recovery.

Keeping the party united

Delia can bank on one major advantage in these elections: voters will not be directly voting for him but for a variety of candidates, some of which are perceived to be close to the Busuttil faction while others are closer to Delia’s ‘new way’. To keep this advantage Delia will need to keep his party united at least till elections due in May.  

One risk of this strategy is that a larger chunk of PN voters will not give a preference to all the party’s candidates. This would further endanger any prospect of the party retaining its third seat due to a lack of vote transfers.

Yet while the PN has managed to field an interesting mix of candidates for the MEP elections – reaffirming the PN’s traditional role as big tent party – Delia has so far failed in refashioning the party in his image. Ironically, by not overplaying his hand as Busuttil did before him, Delia has shown his best when confronting Muscat on corruption and 17 Black. In fact Delia’s greatest achievement so far has been his ability to take the government to the cleaners without showing the sort of contempt towards Muscat and Labour supporters, which alienated Busuttil from voters.

Adrian Delia being sworn in as leader of the opposition
Adrian Delia being sworn in as leader of the opposition

In a country suffering from political fatigue after a highly divisive election in 2017, Delia’s ‘new way’ may have struck a chord even if it has so far not translated in any inroads among floaters and Labour voters. One reason for this is the widespread perception that the PN is a divided house.

Moreover in a context where Labour continues to enjoy popular support despite the accusations of corruption, Delia still struggles to find an alternative battle cry. Delia has tried to exploit discontentment on migration at the risk of pushing the party further to the right. Lately Delia toned down his message, focusing on the sustainability of the increase in population, at the risk of sounding bland.

Moreover in a bid to placate to social conservatives, Delia ended up voting against a domestic violence bill simply because it made no mention of the unborn. Despite official denials, the party also keeps crying wolf on the government’s intentions to introduce abortion, with the latest bizarre twist in party organ il-Mument linking Muscat with “elements in Occupy Justice” who favour abortion.

What will happen if Delia loses heavily?

While tactically Delia cannot afford to give any indication that he would abandon ship if his party suffers heavy losses as this would encourage a segment of PN voters who can’t stand him to abstain, if he stays on after such a heavy defeat, he risks condemning the party to oblivion.  
In the scenario of the party losing ground over its already bad performance in 2014, Delia would be even more vulnerable to a leadership challenge if he persists on staying on.  

But the prospect of a leadership challenge would depend on the willingness of any candidate to throw his or her name in the hat to lead the party in desperate times, fully knowing that he has little chance of winning in the next general election.   

In the absence of this Delia may well stay on as a lame duck leader.  

If Delia resigns out of his own free will, the party may well opt for an interim leader who would be entrusted with re-organising the party until a new leader can be elected. Such a leader must be someone who has no leadership ambitions of his own.

This would also give the party more time to assess the situation in the rival camp, especially if Joseph Muscat vacates the Labour leadership and a leadership contest follows.

For in that case the PN would needs a leader who is a match for Labour’s new leader. Electing an interim leader would give the PN the opportunity to weigh its option in view of whether Muscat decides to stay or go.