Now that the Nationalist Party has Bernard Grech as its new leader, here are six challenges he will have to face.

Turning the electoral tide

The party has not won an election since its narrow victory in 2008 and lost the last by a massive deficit. Polls show that despite rampant government corruption and the political fallout from journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Labour continues to lead by a wide margin.

The COVID crisis – which has arguably been mishandled by the government – and its economic fallout could give Grech some hope that the projected 60,000 gap that some past polls have indicated will not turn into a reality.

With its own supporters divided, the party will have its work cut out to even match the 35,000-vote gap between its PN-PD coalition and Labour in 2017.

Fighting a possible early election

The new PN leader could have the rug pulled out from under his feet early if Prime Minister Robert Abela calls an early election. Grech already faces an uphill struggle if the election is held when due in 2022.

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If an early ballot is called, Grech would have little time to stamp his authority on the party, let alone sell himself to the wider electorate as a credible alternative to prime minister Abela.

The feel-good factor of a new PN leader could quickly dissipate under the pressure of challenging Labour at the polls too soon.

Differentiating himself

Grech’s image as Mr Squeaky Clean was quickly shattered when he was revealed to have his own tax skeletons in the closet, much as Delia did.

In his very first interview with Times of Malta in August, Grech assured all that his tax affairs were in order. This would prove to be untrue, with the new PN leader settling his dues soon after the Times revealed in September that he owed the taxman €30,000.

The young need to once again look to the PN for their future, much as they did when it campaigned for Malta’s accession to the European Union

The fact that he is viewed as a conservative, middle-aged lawyer – again much like Delia – will also be a challenge, particularly given the country’s embrace of Labour’s more liberal policies since 2013.

Finding a place for Adrian Delia

Grech knows he cannot simply boot Delia out of the PN today. The last thing the party can afford is to alienate more supporters and haemorrhage more votes.

Delia has already expressed his intentions to stay on as MP, with Grech in turn saying he sees a role for Delia within the party.

However, the former leader, and his small band of loyal MPs, could prove to be something of a thorn in the new leader’s side as he seeks to reunite a fractured party.

Also, the decision to retain Delia could easily blow up in Grech’s face if an investigation into allegations the former leader had accepted funding from murder suspect Yorgen Fenech prove to be true.

Obtaining a parliamentary seat

This should not be a difficult challenge to overcome.

Like his defeated predecessor, Grech contested the PN leadership without first gaining the parliamentary seat necessary for him to become opposition leader.

Delia unsuccessfully lobbied numerous MPs to give up their seat for him in 2017, before Jean Pierre Debono fell on his sword just months after being sworn in to parliament for the first time.

However, businessman Ivan Bartolo has already signalled his intent internally to make way should Grech win the leadership contest. With the budget to be delivered this month, Grech will need to be sworn in immediately to ensure he is in a position to deliver a strong reaction to what is set to be a vital economic plan for 2021, as the pandemic continues to bite.

Finding new policies… and new blood

Grech has spent the three-week campaign largely sitting on the fence over major policy issues.

He must now dedicate himself fully to speedily outlining a new vision and articulating what the PN stands for.

This will partly entail tapping into and inspiring the younger generations both inside and outside the party. The young need to once again look to the PN for their future, much as they did when it campaigned for Malta’s accession to the European Union.

The PN is also in desperate need of new faces to contest the general election, particularly as some of those who served in the Gonzi government are viewed as toxic by sections of society that typically vote Labour.

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