Six reasons why PN leader Adrian Delia could stay on

Why Adrian Delia’s determination to stay on as PN leader despite the party’s humiliation makes any change in the party’s leadership extremely unlikely before the next general election

1. Delia simply does not want to leave. It would be hard to evict him

Adrian Delia seems determined to stay on as leader and try his luck in the next general elections. He promises that he would be resigning if he fails to make any inroads then. With Labour still to elect a new leader after Muscat, he may still harbour hopes of hanging on to the leadership by reducing the gap. The risk is that this may also send a loud and clear message to party opponents that the only way for the party to get rid of him would be encouraging abstentions in the Nationalist camp.

To avert this risk Delia must impose his so-called “new way” on the party. Yet Delia is also aware that internal opposition remains too strong for him to make a clean sweep and impose his new way. So he remains at the mercy of internal adversaries who can still periodically make his life hell and thus scupper any gains he could have made amongst voters. This was already proven in the past by his inability to side-line Simon Busuttil following the Egrant enquiry.

The strength of internal opposition was confirmed by the election of Kevin Cutajar to parliament, after Jean Pierre Debono was forced to back down from the co-option. The risk facing the party is a long stalemate which would paralyze Delia’s ability to impose his ‘new way’, while at the same time preventing the party from turning a new page. As a consequence impatient and demoralised voters may desert the party.

In short: the spiral of decline may get out of control. In this way Delia may linger on as a lame duck marching to electoral oblivion, making it even harder for any successor to pick up the pieces in 2023. Yet Delia may bank on the unpredictable nature of politics. For if a day in politics is a long time, three years is much longer.


2. Why should he even think of leaving if nobody is challenging him for the leadership?

Delia’s major advantage is that nobody has expressed a willingness to throw his name in the hat as an alternative leader.

Delia knows that he can ward off a challenge by simply showing determination on staying on. For in the absence of him vacating the post out of his own volition, any challenger knows that he or she would condemn the party to a bloodbath, which would leave the party fatally wounded, even weakening the prospect of reducing the gap in the next general election.

One major factor is that there is no clear path for the removal of a leader elected by party members and the process may be messy. On the other hand, a more orderly transition can take place if Delia resigns of his own volition after near certain defeat in the next general election. This would even give future contenders time to prepare and position themselves as contenders in three years’ time.

Yet this would leave them in a catch-22 situation. For to make inroads in the party they would be obliged to give Delia a helping hand in reducing the gap. But if Delia succeeds in this undertaking, he may well decide to stay on even after the next election.

The major dilemma for anyone with future leadership ambitions is how close or distant, he or she would appear to be to Delia in the next three years. Ultimately any new PN leader will need the support of a majority of party members: the same college which elected Delia. One way to avoid this treacherous path and possibly thwart more hesitant contenders, would be to force a contest now, win it and face the music afterwards in the knowledge that things can’t go any worse for the party.

But the safest path for anyone harbouring leadership ambitions would be that of securing a peaceful transition after the general election by offering an olive branch to Delia now.


3. What’s the rush? After all the PN is heading for certain defeat in the next elections

The party did not need any reminder from its former general secretary Joe Saliba that it is heading to defeat in the next general election. This means that any present leadership contender won’t become Prime Minister if Delia is removed now. Judging by the scale of the present gap and the solidity of Labour’s core vote, securing victory in 2028 would also be very difficult.

If Labour stays on in power till 2033 it would have been in power for 20 years, which is not unprecedented in Maltese history. In fact with the exception of Sant’s two-year interlude between 1996 and 1998 the PN had been in power for a quarter of a century from 1987 to 2013. The PN managed to keep power for so long with margins of less than 13,000 votes, which meant that a shift of 7,000 votes would have been enough to topple it from power.

A more plausible path to power for a future PN leader would be that of narrowing the gap substantially in the 2028 general election to win power with a strong majority in 2033. This would render the next election a nuisance, best avoided by any leader aspiring to become PM.

Any aspiring leader knows that two consecutive defeats in 2023 and 2028 could spell the end of any hopes of becoming PM. So why not let Delia burn himself in the next election?


4. The PN does not even know who it will be facing as PL leader in 3 years’ time. All the more reason to wait

Even if a leadership challenge is successful, the prospective PN leader would be facing uncertainty created by Muscat’s intention to step down from the party leadership some time before the next general election. It would be far easier for any prospective PN leader to let Delia face this uncertainty and contest for the leadership after the next election after his/her adversary in Labour has been tried and tested. In this way Delia would serve as the guinea pig for the future leader. This may come at a risk if Delia performs better than expected. There is also a risk that Muscat may be convinced to stay on, vanquish Delia one again and thus leave the PN in an even more demoralised state than it is today.


5. What about appointing an interim leader as a stop-gap? But that only made sense after 2017’s shocker

One solution touted in the past months, is the election of an interim leader instead of Delia. Names floated around include that of former social policy minister and leadership contender in 2004 Louis Galea and former EU commissioner and deputy leader Tonio Borg. Both can be considered elderly stalwarts with no leadership ambitions of their own. This would make them best placed for leading the party in to a voyage of self-discovery thus facing the existential problems, which have been plaguing it since 2008.

This may well have made sense back in 2017 immediately after the election defeat. But embarking on such a path now, less than three years before the general elections would either mean that the interim leader would have to lead the party in the next election (which would be confusing for the electorate), or that the leader elected after the interim phase would barely have a year before facing the electorate.

The choice of interim leader could also weigh heavily on the party. Electing someone who lacks charisma or who may be tempted to direct the party in a more socially conservative direction could sink the party further.

On the other hand electing someone with too much vision and charisma may well turn the interim leader in to a force to be reckoned with especially if he manages to achieve more than is expected of him or her.

Crucially an interim leader would need Delia’s seal of approval especially in view that there is no provision for a temporary leader in the party’s statutes. Otherwise his appointment could well be seen as an attempt to rig the machine in favour of a future contestant. This means that Delia’s determination to stay effectively kills this prospect.


6. The problems are too deep for any leader to heal

Perhaps Delia was right in consoling himself about the PN remaining the second largest party. It may well be the case that the problems faced by the PN are even greater than the personalities involved and the process of decline is a sheer consequence of Labour occupying the political centre ground after gaining approval of the business elites.

Yet Labour itself may end up facing the same identity problems now plaguing the PN after Muscat’s departure. The crisis in the PN may well be the first chapter in the crisis of the entire political system with the two parties finding it increasingly hard to fit the entire political spectrum in their own ranks. This may well open spaces on Labour’s left and the PN’s right for new oppositions to take root in what would become an increasingly volatile landscape, especially if this coincides with an economic slowdown.

In such a scenario remaining the second largest party would be no mean feat. Yet Maltese political parties – bolstered by the electoral system – have so far defied the risks of fragmentation, and have tended to realign around successful charismatic leaders after decades in the wilderness of the opposition. Will the PN prove this pattern wrong?