[ANALYSIS] The PN's bitter internal battle: Splitting along class lines

Adrian Delia’s war on the establishment has given way to a bitter battle on social media: his supporters raging against self-entitled snobs out to get their folksy leader, and the rebels hitting out at what they claim is an inarticulate rabble supporting him.

New way gone awry: Adrian Delia’s anti-stablishment shtick was a defining part of his political narrative when he ran for PN leader. But his detractors have refused to give way, and are now mounting a challenge inside the PN General Council
New way gone awry: Adrian Delia’s anti-stablishment shtick was a defining part of his political narrative when he ran for PN leader. But his detractors have refused to give way, and are now mounting a challenge inside the PN General Council

It is hard not to perceive the resentment against the so called ‘clique’ of supporters of PN leader Adrian Delia on social media, a group the blogger Manuel Delia dismissed as “small-minded tossers”.

Manuel Delia hit back after the Nationalist leader’s people brandished their pitchforks and accused ‘pseudo-bloggers and pseudo-NGOs’ (read: Manuel Delia and Occupy Justice) of accelerating the PN’s electoral downfall.

It is a feeling of class antagonism that has been amply reinforced by respective camps.

Delia’s people says the vote of party members outside the general council, the PN’s highest decision-making organ, is what elected the PN leader, a reminder of their claim for redress from the more restricted cohorts of the general council.

The anti-Delians from the establishment reinforce the view that their rebellion is a bid to reclaim the party from a folksy usurper who does not belong to their exclusive club of party veterans.

Indeed, Delia’s election gave visibility to a PN whose lower middle-class and working class voters, always present on the frontlines of tribal warfare, are largely absent from the public arena of debate.

Generalisations apart, Delia’s defenders are hardly bereft of articulate commentators or even people who had actively supported Simon Busuttil’s anti-corruption drive – even sharing Daphne Caruana Galizia’s posts. Delia’s detractors include people who simply feel let down by the PN leader’s lack of competence, and yearn for a fresh start.

But it’s a battle fought on shifting sands, where today’s enemy may well have been yesterday’s ally.

The cringe factor: From Muscat to Delia

The Simon years: Legitimate concerns on corruption were often expressed in a language of entitlement that suggested Labour's greatest sin was having won the Nationalists' divine right to rule
The Simon years: Legitimate concerns on corruption were often expressed in a language of entitlement that suggested Labour's greatest sin was having won the Nationalists' divine right to rule

It’s hard to avoid the similarity in the attitudes of the anti-Delia faction, and the way this same elite cringed at Labour supporters and switchers. Too gauche, too brash, too nouveau-riche, ‘chavvy’ and ‘bogan’ – anti working-class monikers from the Caruana Galizia lexicon.

And from this, legitimate concerns on corruption and conflicts of interest were often expressed in a language of entitlement which suggested Labour’s greatest sin was having won the Nationalists’ divine right to rule.

Not even the power of big business itself gets questioned, but the lèse-majesté that old and new business elites are consorting with Labour. So confrontation came in the form of an attack on Labour’s crassness, with corruption perceived as an inherent evil.

The same attitude is now reserved for Delia and his allies, often caricatured by their detractors as ‘Muscat’s secret agents’ in the PN; the same party which sinfully, used its power in government to gift land to the Tumas Group practically for free, now lashes out against Kristy Debono for her misjudgement in meeting Tumas magnate Yorgen Fenech, to ask for a conference room, after the businessman was outed as the owner of the 17 Black offshore company.

Robert Musumeci: His defence of Adrian Delia reinforces the perception among some PN sympathisers of collusion with the PN leadership and in the process weakening Delia's hand
Robert Musumeci: His defence of Adrian Delia reinforces the perception among some PN sympathisers of collusion with the PN leadership and in the process weakening Delia's hand

Delia is not helped when Labour apologist Robert Musumeci ‘defends’ his mandate, reinforcing the perception of collusion and weakening Delia’s attempt to steer a less confrontational but strong anti-corruption message. Indeed from day one Delia found a degree of sympathy among Labour voters who would never dream of voting for the PN anyway, useless in narrowing the gap.

But Delia’s fan base perpetuates the stereotype by reacting to attacks on the leadership in the only way they know: raw tribalism that views criticism as an act of betrayal, in what is a failure to recognise that the PN can only survive as a coalition of people with different views.

One should not be all too surprised by this. This was the same way the PN has been treating past critics like Franco Debono, after they fell out with the leadership.

Delia’s effectiveness as leader

Adrian Delia failed to build bridges with his detractors in the party
Adrian Delia failed to build bridges with his detractors in the party

Seeing what is happening in the PN as a clash between elitists and anti-elitists risks obscuring some very practical considerations.

A real question to be asked is whether Delia has delivered anything in the past two years at the helm. Did his anti-establishment promise transform into a concrete platform appealing to floaters and a segment of Labour voters? Resoundingly, no. Even if he faced obstacles from the ‘establishment’, Delia failed in building bridges to create a solid team around him and presenting a message of change that inspires voters.

But evicting him after two years may not be the best answer to the current problems if the overriding concern for the PN’s voters is party unity.

There have been a few silver linings. Delia’s criticism of the 17 Black revelation was strong and measured, but to the point. And his criticism of Muscat on corruption issues was in synch with the country’s fatigue with endless confrontation.

And the PN presented a good and varied team of MEP candidates which reflected the different nuances of the PN coalition, with new faces like Peter Agius, Roslyn Borg Knight, Frank Psaila and Michael Briguglio, even if none were elected in what turned out to be a lacklustre campaign during which Delia did not stand out as an effective communicator.

When anti-elitism turns toxic

Adrian Delia can hardly be compared to Donald Trump, especially on his immigration rhetoric which is more busy toying with populism rather than going all the way
Adrian Delia can hardly be compared to Donald Trump, especially on his immigration rhetoric which is more busy toying with populism rather than going all the way

Still Delia’s message on immigration and abortion increasingly sounded like a broken record. In this, Delia’s performance exposes the risk of what happens when anti-elitism is expressed by political outsiders on the right wing of the spectrum, who in their bid to mobilise the common folk are more likely to pander to prejudice and fear rather than to social justice.

It is no wonder that his foremost defender in the parliamentary group is Edwin Vassallo, an MP who irresponsibly lashes out against educators and spreads fake news on “blood being injected in bananas”, without ever being rebuked by the party.

Yet neither can one consider Delia as a Trump in the making. Delia seemed more busy toying with populism without having any intention or the will to go all the way, except on the single issue of abortion, where the party went overboard in a way which suggests an obsession with women’s wombs.

A short history of Maltese anti-elitism

Anti-elitism predates Delia: Eddie Fenech Adami widened the PN's appeal to workers and contractors outside the immediate circle of landowners
Anti-elitism predates Delia: Eddie Fenech Adami widened the PN's appeal to workers and contractors outside the immediate circle of landowners

While perfectly natural that the socially privileged resent any kind of anti-elitism, anti-elitism itself can be a force for greater democracy, but also a factor which contributes to the rise of fascism.

The discourse of the far-right in the US and Europe targets the elite, a term no longer reserved for the rich and powerful but a term of abuse directed against NGOs, intellectuals and the media commentariat.

Yet there is also a left-wing anti-elitism which challenges power and privilege. Malta’s first anti-establishment politician Manwel Dimech, a former prisoner, lashed against the mediocrity and prejudice prevalent amongst the masses while directing his anger against the Church and colonial authorities for keeping the masses ignorant. He embarked on the education of the masses with missionary zeal.

Dom Mintoff, an intellectual in his own right, spoke to the masses in parables to explain concepts like income redistribution and the welfare state during mass meetings.

Even in the Nationalist party. anti-elitism pre-dates Delia. Eddie Fenech Adami was keen on widening his party’s appeal not just to a segment of the working class by accepting some basic tenets of Mintoff’s welfare state, but also by mingling with contractors from outside the restricted circle of the traditional landowning elites.

It was when the perception of a restricted circle started creeping again under Lawrence Gonzi, that the PN started experiencing trouble as Joseph Muscat made inroads in these disenchanted business circles.

Joseph Muscat toyed with the anti-immigrant card but has engaged his audience on thorny issues like homophobia and racism
Joseph Muscat toyed with the anti-immigrant card but has engaged his audience on thorny issues like homophobia and racism

Muscat himself toyed with the anti-immigrant card in his early years, and still harks on populist narratives like that of creating a nation of “small rich people”. But on occasions Muscat does engage his audience on thorny issues like homophobia and racism, managing to change popular mentalities in the process.

It is in these moments that he comes across as a transformational leader. Delia has, so far, been ineffective in inspiring such changes in the way his supporters think.

Ironically, at a time when words like elitism and establishment have become common currency, social class has been practically wiped out of the political vocabulary of both major parties. But there may still be room for a real anti-elitist movement in today’s Malta which confronts low incomes and social inequality, and the dominance of big business.

Ironically, it is also those opposed to Delia, who take a leaf from the latter chapters of Caruana Galizia’s playbook by lashing out at business elites and the developers’ lobby, even if this often comes across as resentment at their collusion with Muscat’s Labour and not an authentic critique of the system.

Caruana Galizia herself had written articles in favour of golf course developments and only started attacking big business when Labour was elected to power.

On the other hand, despite his anti-elitist claims, with the notable exception of the Corinthia deal where he was in synch with the concerns of other developers, Adrian Delia has been over-cautious when confronting the developers’ lobby.

The PN faces an existential problem: What does it stand for?
The PN faces an existential problem: What does it stand for?

Ultimately, the factional clash between rival PN factions exposes the existential problem facing the PN, which is best summed by the question: “What does the party stand for now that Muscat has expanded his party’s boundaries deep in traditional PN territory?”

Neither are the lines clearly drawn in the current divide, with liberals and conservatives found in both camps. For example, liberals like Mario de Marco and social conservatives like Jason Azzopardi and Claudio Grech are reportedly positioned in the anti-Delia camp, even if they appeal to very different constituencies.

Even in the unlikely event that the party splits, it is hard to imagine what will keep each faction united apart from antipathy towards the other, which may have become even greater than the overriding antipathy towards Labour.

One possible albeit unlikely scenario could be a split across geographical and class fault lines.

But the fall-out from evicting the Delia faction into the political wilderness may be even more unpredictable than an outright split, risking a strengthening of Labour by swelling its ranks with a new wave of dejected Nationalists betrayed by the establishment; or by creating a base for a populist and even more conservative right-wing outfit which panders to the fears nurtured by growing social inequalities, uncertainties and precariousness.

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