[ANALYSIS] To the left or to the right? Five ways the PN could reinvent itself

JAMES DEBONO proposes five ways in which the embattled PN can reinvent itself and avoid the fate of permanently becoming Malta’s ‘second largest party’

PN leader Adrian Delia may well stay on as a lame duck till the next election with nobody seemingly willing to mount a leadership challenge. But Delia may have been not far off the mark when he consoled himself with the PN being “Malta’s second largest party,” a realisation which explains why nobody is too keen to take his place.

The PN does not risk extinction. The risk the PN faces is that of permanently becoming a second party and losing its ability to command sustained electoral majorities from the political centre.

And there is no quick fix to this problem. For the decline of the Nationalist Party goes back to 2004, when under Lawrence Gonzi as its new leader the PN struggled with a loss of raison d’être, and the loss of that sense of purpose which kept a disparate coalition of voters united by the goal of joining the European Union.

What kept the party afloat was the notion that the PN had become a natural party of government, in contrast to Alfred Sant’s ramshackle opposition. That enabled Gonzi to win by the slimmest of majorities in 2008. But after 2018 Muscat managed to reinvent the Labour Party as a socially liberal version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s third way politics.

Now condemned to the opposition again, under a new leader the PN was still under the illusion that its loss of power was a historical quirk.

Anger over the Panama Papers provided the illusion of a quick return to power, which triggered an attempt to raise the stakes higher by riding on the unproven Egrant allegations. In so doing the party ignored the change in the political landscape in which Labour had become the new centre, luring the business class to the new neoliberal tune while still giving visibility and rights to social groups, which had been marginalised for decades.

In this way Muscat has left two gaps wide open for the PN to occupy at its own peril: a gap on his left which the PN can only fill by becoming something which it never was; and a gap on his right which would entrench the PN’s minority status for posterity.

1. Becoming a national conservative party

Under Delia the party did try to stand for “something” by trying to substitute good governance as its rallying cry, with mumblings on immigration and on the risks of further liberalisation of values under Muscat. Playing the abortion card can be seen as an attempt to cajole these voters.

But among voters at large this attempt smacked of desperation, especially in view of the fact that the EU parliament has no jurisdiction on the matter. Yet even Delia has not been too keen on reversing rights acquired under Muscat. His only red line so far has been issues related to ‘life’ which were bizarrely extended to IVF and the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence. People close to Delia insist that the party can only abandon its conservative cohort at its own risk. Conservative voters have always been a reality in the PN, co-existing with more liberal currents. The internal balance was kept by left-leaning Catholic ideologues like Peter Serracino Inglott, who had Eddie Fenech Adami’s ears.

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo: unrepentant conservative
Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo: unrepentant conservative

Conservatives had also accepted the party’s EU vocation on the mistaken premise that this reinforced Malta’s membership in a white Christian club. But they were completely unprepared for the change unleashed by the watershed divorce referendum and later by Muscat’s liberalising reforms.

They felt let down by Busuttil’s acceptance of gay marriage without any real debate in the party and thus may see in Delia as an opportunity to come out of the woodworks. In fact rants against sex education classes by the likes of Edwin Vassallo end up reinforcing the mental block amongst liberals towards the party.

Going further down this road will give the PN a sense of purpose and possibly entrench its position as the second largest party, but it is a path leading to a dead end when it comes to winning electoral majorities. One cannot exclude that a more refined and compassionate conservatism and nativism may become more attractive if the economy does experience a downturn in the next decade.

2. Going back to Simon’s ways

The other alternative to Delia is that of going back to predecessor Simon Busuttil’s way of doing politics, which basically boils down to challenging the moral legitimacy of Muscat’s government. Sure enough Labour’s track record on governance, exemplified by Muscat’s decision to keep Konrad Mizzi in his cabinet, remains one of its worst blemishes. Any opposition worthy of its name would take the government to the cleaners after a scandal of this magnitude.

At work... Simon et all go to court
At work... Simon et all go to court

Yet this did not stop Labour from winning big in elections. One may even conclude that if the strategy did not work in the aftermath of the Panama scandal, it is even less likely that the strategy would work now. And for the electorate, the anti-corruption crusade smacked of a short-cut to power for a party which had been in opposition for only four years, during which there were few signs of real contrition. Once again, this strategy may work to keep the PN alive and kicking without any real prospect of becoming a majority party. It may also cover up deeper divides in the party on social and economic issues but this won’t be enough to propel the party to a new majority.

3. Lurching to the left

This may be seen as an exercise in political science-fiction because throughout history the PN was a centrist party which had to catch up with Labour’s appeal amongst the working class, while always remaining in sync with the business elites.

Although under Busuttil the party did oppose land grabs in Zonqor and Pembroke, these positions were never articulated in a coherent programme touching also on issues like the minimum wage and social welfare.

Local elections still show the PN remaining stronger in affluent bourgeois localities like Sliema, Lija, Attard and Swieqi, which harbour discontent on environmental issues; but the PN remains weak in southern and central localities where its message is not even coming across. One reason for this may be that despite its lurch to the right, Muscat’s Labour still has changed the life of working and middle-class voters through measures like free childcare, free school transport and free exams.

Moreover by advocating policies like rent control and an increase in the minimum wage the PN would end up further alienating the business class and property owners. Therefore the most one can expect from the PN is a more solid commitment on land use issues which impact their core voters negatively. It may be more realistic to expect a “correction” from the left within Labour in a post-Muscat scenario, especially in a scenario of an economic slowdown.

A more radical left may also emerge from civil society activists who actually believe in wealth redistribution and more sustainable indicators of progress other than sheer economic growth. Yet such movements will most likely keep their distance from the PN, actually benefitting from a situation where critics of the government can no longer be pinned down as Nationalists in disguise.

4. Becoming more ‘pro business’ than Labour

Although Labour has shifted its economic policies to the right, there are clear limits on how further Labour can go without alienating support within its core working class constituency.

In fact in the next years one expects Labour to start addressing the housing problem through policies which may restrict the laissez-faire attitude in this sector. The PN may in this way position itself on the right wing of the spectrum by standing up for free markets. It may also propose bold policies like a fiscal system based on a flat tax rate which could appeal to the self-employed. But this will not go down well with the party’s Christian democratic wing and may further restrict the party’s appeal in less affluent regions.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat kicking off Labour's electoral campaign
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat kicking off Labour's electoral campaign

While such policies may help the party reconnect with the business class, this may further weaken its chances of winning a majority of votes.

5. Reinventing the party’s appeal to the centre

In the circumstances the PN’s best bet may well be that of presenting itself as a centrist alternative to Muscat’s own centrist brand, moving just a bit to the left or to the right to exploit weaknesses in Labour’s positioning in the spectrum, while ensuring continuity upon winning power.

But the success of such a political project would depend on attracting strong candidates who are perceived as better managers of the economy than Muscat’s crop of ministers and aspiring politicians.

To win, the PN needs a shadow cabinet which is perceived by voters to be as capable in managing the economy as well as Labour. This will be difficult in a situation where the PN has the word ‘loser’ written all over it. It would also depend on having a leader who is able to come across as moderate and reassuring ,while able to deliver a couple of punches to keep the maximalists on board.

Bruised by defeat in the mid-terms and by internal divisions, Delia may well be perceived as a stopgap measure till the election of a new leader after the next general election. The risk is that by then the decline may well spiral out of control, scorching the earth under the feet of any aspirational leader the PN may have.

Irish PM Leo Varadkar
Irish PM Leo Varadkar

But to even start reclaiming the centre the party will have to redefine its stances. Good governance may well be redefined as a new way of administrating the country rather than using corruption as sheer ammunition against Labour.

But if successful, the party will be increasingly under pressure to appease its own tribe, especially if it is perceived as having a chance to get back to power. The party may even resolve the conservative/liberal divide by opting for freedom of conscience on all ethical issues – except abortion – which will probably remain the party’s identity fetish.

In the vein of David Cameron in the UK or John McCain in the US, it may also project a more compassionate image on social welfare while sticking to its economically liberal roots. This may well be the only trajectory which may take the PN back to power, albeit one which will probably leave the country the same in terms of income inequality and the distribution of wealth.

Or it may choose to imitate the success of Fine Gael in Ireland, combining its economically liberal orientation with a more socially liberal one. It was under the leadership of Ireland's first gay PM Leo Varadkar, a member of the European People's Party, which the country  introduced a liberal abortion law after dropping the constitutional ban on abortion. In this way the party would drop its obsession with women's wombs, which may be off-putting to liberal female voters, and concentrate  on social and economic issues. Yet this is extremely unlikely in a party where the conservative cohort is so dominant. But in the future the PN will inevitably have to contend with a more vocal  pro choice minority in civil society and will have problems if it chooses to impose its pro-life stance on every candidate contesting with the party.

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