[ANALYSIS] How Delia has survived by calling the rebels’ bluff

A month after the disastrous European elections Adrian Delia has refused to stand aside and nobody dared challenge him for the leadership. Does this mean he will stay on to lead the party to the next general election?

PN leader, Adrian Delia
PN leader, Adrian Delia

Adrian Delia has predictably exploited the greatest weakness of his internal adversaries: the absence of a credible rival to challenge him, take his place and reunite the party.

For only a leader who wins a contest among party members can enjoy the same legitimacy which Delia still enjoys as the choice of party members in a democratic contest made two years ago.

The alternative for rebel MPs could be that of electing a new Opposition leader instead of Delia, who would remain leader of the party. But such a course of action could end up reinforcing the perception of an internal ‘elitist’ coup by MPs to reverse the choice of party members.

It would be a recipe for internal chaos, for which rebel MPs would be inevitably blamed and probably punished in the next general election.

Moreover, it is extremely unlikely for a Nationalist MP to challenge Delia for the leadership of the parliamentary group, without actually becoming party leader.

The only historical precedent for such a course of action was the refusal of a majority of Labour MPs in 1949 to accept Dom Mintoff, who had defeated Boffa amongst party delegates as the newly-elected leader of the party, thus triggering a split.

But while in 1949 Mintoff had earned the legitimacy of party delegates and eventually of voters to become Prime Minister in 1956, anyone elected Opposition leader in Delia’s place would be perceived as the choice of MPs who failed to respect the vote of rank and file party members.

Then again, even if MPs embark on the more torturous path of dethroning Delia through party structures by collecting 150 signatures from members of the General Council to call an extraordinary meeting, they risk taking the party in unchartered waters, especially if they proceed without proposing an alternative leader. For what if Delia is dethroned and nobody of substance is willing to take his place in such a difficult moment for the party?

It is no secret that potential future leaders like Claudio Grech and Roberta Metsola are wary of contesting now
It is no secret that potential future leaders like Claudio Grech and Roberta Metsola are wary of contesting now

It is no secret that potential future leaders like Roberta Metsola and Claudio Grech are wary of contesting now. Anyone with serious aspirations to become Prime Minister would rather get elected after the next general election than in the middle of this legislature, following a divisive contest which could well leave the party even weaker than it is now.

Moreover anyone elected in these circumstances would be faced by one pertinent question: How will rank and file Nationalists who still support Delia react to the election of a new leader?

Neither can they exclude Delia presenting his name to party councillors and members and quashing the challenge as Jeremy Corbyn did in the UK in 2016 after losing the support of most Labour MPs. Delia’s position is indeed reminiscent of Alfred Sant’s position in 2003. Unlike Delia, Sant had announced that he would resign after losing the general election, only to change his mind a few weeks later.

The end result was the humiliation of the two lightweight challengers: John Attard Montalto and Anglu Farrugia, and Sant’s confirmation as the Labour leader who went on to lead his party to a third consecutive electoral defeat in 2008.

Why Delia avoids a confirmation vote

By refusing to budge Delia has called the bluff of his adversaries, who fully know that with every day which passes, he reinforces the idea that he is here to stay until the next general election. Perhaps Delia’s greatest weakness is his refusal to go to party councillors to seek a renewal of his mandate as suggested by former party leader Lawrence Gonzi. For if he does so and is confirmed as leader, such a vote would strengthen him and effectively kill the rebellion against him.

Yet, this in itself would beg the question: If Delia was elected by members why should his mandate be renewed by councillors?

One alternative for Delia would therefore be to go directly to party members for confirmation in an internal plebiscite. But Delia may be wary of embarking on a treacherous course, which would give rebels a sense of purpose, which could unite them.

Frank Psaila's failure to get elected in the European election was a blow to Adrian Delia
Frank Psaila's failure to get elected in the European election was a blow to Adrian Delia

One risk of any such vote is that even if Delia wins it, it could expose a deep rift in the party with a sizeable chunk voting for his removal. Delia’s failure to elect Frank Psaila as MEP and the re-election of incumbent David Casa was a strong indication that a large segment of the Nationalist electorate shuns him.

This mood was bound to be reflected to some extent in the more restricted cohorts of party councillors or members. Therefore, it is much safer for Delia to insist on the mandate given to him by party members two years ago.

A lame duck leader?

Even if Delia survives, his internal enemies may still erode his authority. Over the past weeks he has already lost a close ally, Pierre Portelli, who resigned from head of the PN’s media after falling out with the anti-Delia faction, while another ally, Jean Pierre Debono, had to give up his bid to reclaim the seat he had relinquished to ensure Delia’s entry to parliament.

Adrian Delia may still end up being a lame duck
Adrian Delia may still end up being a lame duck

If Delia harbours any hope of, at least, reducing the gap with Labour in the next election, he desperately needs to assert his authority in the party and restore a semblance of unity. But Delia is also aware that internal opposition remains too strong for him to make a clean sweep and the only way to keep the party united is by winning over at least some of his opponents and thus render the others irrelevant.

The greatest risk he faces is that of remaining at the mercy of internal adversaries who can still periodically make his life hell and thus scupper any points he may have gained with the electorate.

How far can they go?

Yet, there is also a limit on how far rebels can go without further undermining their reputation among PN voters. For if they persist in undermining Delia without proposing an alternative, they will also be undermining the party and making it even harder for a future PN leader to pick up the pieces.

Moreover, future contenders for the party’s leadership would be wary of associating themselves with an aimless rebellion which risks alienating them from rank and file party members who may not be enthusiastic for Delia, but would expect everyone to do his part to minimise the damage to the party.

Still, it is also possible that Delia’s refusal to stand aside will result in disengagement among that category of voters who do not feel represented by him, which could result in a further restriction of the party’s talent pool as potential candidates seeking success in politics would increasingly shun the party.

The end result could well be a stop-gap lame duck leadership in anticipation of an inevitable thrashing in the next election, which nobody seems to want on his or her CV.

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This story first appeared in the print edition of MaltaToday and was written before the latest developments