[ANALYSIS] Three reasons Muscat defended Adrian Delia’s mandate on Sunday

Joseph Muscat has lashed out at the anti-democratic mind-frame of those in the PN who question Adrian Delia’s popular mandate – but Muscat knows that supporting Delia reinforces his internal critics’ perception of collusion between the two leaders

Adrian Delia’s new way has resulted in a thawing of relations between the leaders of the two rival parties, restoring a semblance of civil confrontation
Adrian Delia’s new way has resulted in a thawing of relations between the leaders of the two rival parties, restoring a semblance of civil confrontation

On Sunday Joseph Muscat stopped short of expressing support for embattled Opposition leader Adrian Delia, who is facing internal pressure to resign after he was accused by his wife of domestic violence and following further revelations on his personal financial situation; but took the PN’s troubles as an opportunity to question the democratic credentials of those trying to unseat Delia.

“The PN’s members chose a leader but it is clear that the powers that be within the PN don’t respect this decision,” he said at a political rally in Ħaż-Żabbar.

In so doing Muscat may be more interested in affirming his leadership among a category of former PN voters who see in Delia’s fate the confirmation of the politics of exclusion by the party’s old guard.

“There are people behind the scenes in the PN who believe that only their opinions are valid and that democracy is only relevant when the people agree with them. It’s a trait that betrays them and is extremely dangerous.”


What does this say about Muscat’s intentions?

1. Muscat may be simply sowing more chaos in the PN’s house.

Muscat fully knows that Delia has been undermined by internal critics who constantly hint at Delia’s role as a double agent who is in collusion with the government. Recently even an innocuous selfie of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Adrian Delia who happened to bump into each other while watching the Maltese football team was interpreted by the Democratic Party and Manuel Delia as a sign of “collusion”.  

It is obvious that any words of support from Muscat to Delia only help to confirm this narrative. In this case Muscat has avoided actually supporting Delia but has lashed at the frame of mind of those opposing him.  In this way he strayed away from the criticism that he is taking the side of someone accused of domestic violence.  

Yet at the same time Muscat’s calculated words are bound to be interpreted by the anti-Delia faction as proof of collusion between the two political leaders.  

This obviously weakens Delia who over the past months has done everything possible to prove himself internally by taking a very firm stance on 17 Black and corruption.  

Even in his more recent troubles Delia has done his best to throw the tables back on internal critics by describing them as “Labour’s allies.”

Muscat’s words in defence of Delia’s democratic mandate put short shrift of Delia’s claim.  Muscat may also be banking on the increased likelihood of Delia surviving as a lame duck PN leader, who is perceived to be in cahoots with Labour by a segment of PN voters.

2.  Muscat wants to present Delia’s story as a cautionary tale for switchers who were tuned off by the party’s perceived detachment from popular sentiment.  

Muscat may have a particular category of PN voters who switched to Labour in 2013 or in 2016,  when he attacks the mind-frame of Delia’s internal opponents. Some of these voters may sympathise and even identify with Delia’s personal plight but simply as a justification for their choice to cross over to Labour.

This may explain why on Sunday Muscat referred to the reluctance of the party’s old guard to vote for divorce after the 2012 referendum as an example of this anti-democratic mind frame.   

Muscat stretched the same argument to link the same mind-frame to Simon Busuttil’s obstinacy when faced with a court judgement which effectively blocked an inquiry on Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s Panama companies.  

This suggests that the kind of switchers he has in mind are not those turned off by corruption allegations but mostly those who have come to see in Muscat’s Labour a re-edition of the more inclusive PN in the early 1990s before it was taken over by perceived and real cliques.  

The message Muscat wants to send is that even if Delia survives, the Nationalist Party remains a deep well full of knives, where any attempt to change things from within is thwarted by an unforgiving old guard.  

Joseph Muscat genuinely resents the anti-Delia faction and prefers Delia as PN leader
Joseph Muscat genuinely resents the anti-Delia faction and prefers Delia as PN leader

In reality this sentiment ignores doubts on the effectiveness of Delia’s own leadership and how tenable it can be in view of serious allegations, but it still resonates among a category of voters who over the years felt excluded from the party for a variety of reasons.  

They may well perceive Delia to be another victim of the cliques which pushed them in to Muscat’s embrace.

3. Muscat genuinely resents the anti-Delia faction and prefers Delia as PN leader.

Muscat makes it clear that what happens in the PN is not his business but his speech betrays his greater personal antipathy for the anti-Delia faction which has given him no respite on corruption allegations even after the publication of the Egrant inquiry’s conclusions which exonerated him from one of the main accusations.  

For although under Delia the Opposition has not relented in its criticism of the Muscat administration in matters related to governance and the Panama aftermath, Delia’s new way has also resulted in a thawing of relations between the leaders of the two rival parties, restoring a semblance of civil confrontation.  

Ironically this positive development on a national level has not been reflected in a greater tolerance for internal debate in the Nationalist Party, where Delia has embarked on the war path against “traitors”, after the tenability of his leadership was questioned.   

What unites Delia and Muscat in their assessment of the situation is that it ignores that a segment of PN leaning voters who welcome Delia’s less confrontational style have strong doubts on his effectiveness in leading a strong Opposition which keeps the government in check.

Irrespective of the intentions behind Muscat’s attack on the mainframe of Delia’s antagonists, Muscat is correct in his overall analysis of the political situation.

“If the PN were in power right now, the economy and the entire country would have come to a standstill. If they are not capable of running an Opposition, how can they be expected to run a country?” Muscat asks.   

Ultimately voters will be asking which party is best suited to govern the country: a divided PN or a united government? The question for the PN is: can it be ever seen as capable of running the country with Delia at its helm and does an alternative leader who can do so even exist?