For years now, the Nationalist Party has been on a soul-searching mission, desperate to understand its steady decline. We almost forget that the party was once ahead in the polls, instead of trying – and failing – to rehabilitate itself.
Several reports and strategy groups later, the situation remains unchanged. Lessons have not been learned. They’re still floundering. And this is surprising when you consider the golden opportunities it has been handed on a silver platter. An electoral comeback could have been a cinch.
I’ve steered clear of writing about the PN. For various reasons. Anything I say will be perceived as a Trojan horse. Plus, the PN just can’t get a break these days. Should I really be stirring the pot? Still, I believe in the need for a healthy and united opposition.
So why has PN failed consistently to inspire?
An identity crisis makes affiliation difficult for members. Once upon a time, the PN was recognisable, its leader had clout, the party was a team and, while there must have been dissonance, there was a semblance of a united front. But by 2008, when Daphne Caruana Galizia started blogging, the lines started to blur. She never concealed her visceral loathing of the Labour Party or her mission to keep it out of power. The PN was spared her wrath. Until, that is, Adrian Delia threw his hat into the ring.
Her declaration – that she’d now engage the PN as brutally as Labour – was a significant admission that, by the time Simon Busuttil had taken over from Lawrence Gonzi, she was the public voice of PN. Her cause was its cause, her blog expressed its agenda and even set it. Busuttil dutifully followed, made the right inquiries and based an entire electoral campaign on Daphne’s Egrant mission.
No matter how insightful or successful she had been, Caruana Galizia did not help the PN cause one iota in the longer term. Busuttil was increasingly her lap dog and the PN was ‘her’ party. PN people on the receiving end of her vilification (of which there were many) were alienated. The last straw was the PN's decision to crowdfund for her. This sealed the party’s fate and lost it the 2017 election, an even worse defeat than 2013.
Had Caruana Galizia left Delia alone, things might have been different. But the rest, as they say, was history. After delivering Delia his ‘kiss of death’, she did not live to see the PN implode. Internecine battle lines were drawn and Team Delia found itself ranged against Team Busuttil/Azzopardi. And if that wasn’t enough, civil society organisations mushroomed, all firmly rooting for the latter. Delia was between a rock and a hard place.
Nowadays, when you think of the PN, the last thing you think of is Bernard Grech and his shadow cabinet- Michela Spiteri
Once, the PN comprised a clear leader surrounded by a phalanx of cabinet ministers. Now it’s riven by sect after sect – a word I use deliberately to mean ‘a group of people with different (even heretical) beliefs from those of a larger group to which they belong’. And so we reach the point of traditional, yet vocal Nationalists more than ready to beat their own drums.
They may not officially represent the PN and may even disagree with its current principles and policies but they still share some of its socio-cultural narrative. It’s rather like a spreading a family tree, with the actual party leader and MPs at the very bottom, barely visible. What this means is that, for those who cannot abide civil society, voting PN is now a non-starter.
Those of us who have done it, know how hard parenting is. Co-parenting is arguably even harder because there are two of you. Presenting a united front is probably most challenging of all. Successful parents are those who support each other, even when they don’t necessarily agree.
That is exactly what Bernard Grech tried to do last week when he ordered a ceasefire between the Delia and Azzopardi factions. For his pains, he was publicly denounced by civil society and labelled a traitor whose mask had slipped. Just like Delia, the hapless Grech suddenly didn’t have what it takes to ‘fight the good fight’. And by rating Azzopardi and Delia at par, he was accused of aligning himself with the demons of Labour. How nauseating.
What hope, therefore, can a PN led by Grech possibly have? What these people fail to understand is that, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of winning an election, Team Delia is as important – possibly even more important – than Team Azzopardi, who appeals to extremists. Hard as it may be for the sectarians to stomach, an electable PN needs people. Lots of them – at least 20,000 (and counting) more than it currently has.
That includes moderates, third tier and, yes, even Labour ‘trolls’, former PN voters who have since changed sides and which Delia might be more likely to woo back. For one thing, he’s not sanctimonious, which might explain why Grech did what he did. The self-righteous types on the Azzopardi wing, formed as they are into well-organised groups who orchestrate protests periodically, really do rub a lot of people the wrong way.
How can someone, broadly in line with the PN of old, reconcile himself to such hybrid offshoots as Occupy Justice, Repubblika, The Daphne Foundation et al? Nowadays, when you think of the PN, the last thing you think of is Grech and his shadow cabinet. Instead, you are bombarded by so called ‘civil society’ (who are anything but civil), arrogantly calling him out on Facebook. The shrill and strident remain, defiantly, an albatross around their own party’s neck whose voices they’ve drowned out. The odds are stacked against Grech. His party has been hijacked.
The problem the PN faces, therefore, is that too many of its ostensible ‘supporters’ spray-gun and thrash it, denigrating its leadership and dismissing as ‘trolls’ those who are ironically its only available route to government. You don’t win an election by running your party like an exclusive club where only ‘elite members’ are made to feel welcome. Grech has understood this.