Opportunity, threat beckons for PN
The divorce issue gives the Nationalist Party the opportunity to show that it is the open modern party it was always perceived to be whenever it was successful at the polls. The wrong decision could doom the PN to narrow its support, with Labour attracting liberals who have happily voted PN since 1981.
In their book published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain in 1997, Beyond Left and Right, academics John Blundell and Brian Gosschalk argue that the popular ‘shorthand’ descriptions of left and right used for political parties and voters leave a lot to be desired.
They suggest there are actually four clusters of political opinion based on one’s view of how much government intervention there should be in two areas: economic choices and personal life.
They describe those who favour high or low intervention in both areas as “authoritarian” and “liberal”, respectively.
Alternatively, those who want high intervention in only one area are described as “socialist” or “conservative”.
I believe this is a much better way of describing parties and voters in Malta. Authoritarians and socialists have been happy together in the Labour Party since the 1950s, and it is a real pity that Labour’s inexperienced leader, Joseph Muscat, keeps harking back to Mintoff’s time when authoritarian socialism blighted Malta’s prospects for so many years.
The PN, on the other hand, has been a coalition of conservatives and liberals, particularly when it was successful at the polls.
Both wings agree on more freedom in economic matters. However, they disagree on personal freedoms, and this is the nub of the divorce issue bedevelling the PN at the moment.
Blundell and Gosschalk find that across democratic countries, 15 to 20 per cent of the electorate would be liberal, while up to 35 per cent would be conservative.
This does not mean they would always vote for parties describing themselves as such. I think these percentages apply for Malta as well.
The number of people who vote PN in general elections but do not bother to vote, in other elections gives an inkling of the number of PN voters who do not identify themselves totally with the party.
This is some 40,000 voters out of 140,000: 30 per cent of the PN’s share of the vote or 15 per cent of the electorate.
There’s no arguing that a majority of those who vote Nationalist are conservative in outlook. But the key to the PN’s almost continuous electoral success since the early 1980s has been the openness that attracted liberals and even some socialists to its fold.
In actual fact, the PN has since the late 1970s been a centrist party where people of diverse opinions felt welcomed, knowing that their priority aspirations would be catered for even though they could disagree on issues of lesser importance for them.
In handling the divorce issue, the Nationalists now face both an opportunity and a huge threat at the same time.
The opportunity is for the PN to confirm its openness and keep liberals who favour divorce still within its fold.
Playing its hand skilfully, the PN has the prospect of showing that, even after an almost uninterrupted 25 years in office, it is the party of rational discussion, democratic consultation and real change.
On the other hand, if the PN opts to be emotional and irrational, it faces the prospect of a meltdown, handing power on a plate to an inexperienced Joseph Muscat whose only aptitude is for political posturing but who is now talking about divorce with the same language used by liberals who have been voting Nationalist for three decades.
That would indeed be a pity; but so far I see the PN going down this ill-fated road.
The PN executive committee members, who are to meet soon to decide on the divorce issue, should in no way underestimate the huge responsibility that they hold both collectively and individually.
The choice they make now can catapult the party into power yet again if they endeavour to keep liberals within their party’s fold. Otherwise, they will bear the responsibility for several years in the wilderness.
There are between a quarter and a third of PN voters who are liberal.
These are not ‘religio et patria’ Nationalists but feel at ease in the PN because they hate socialist diktats.
They have a cosmopolitan mindset, feel absolutely European and disagree with compulsion by the state, whether it is in the type of toothpaste they buy or in the lifestyle they lead.
These are people who were in tune with the ‘Xogħol, Ġustizzja u Libertà slogan: middle-class and educated to a better-than-average level, who value free open politics, economic choice, and human and civil rights.
In adopting a position on divorce and the way the PN goes and talks about it, it is paramount that it should ensure liberals are absolutely comfortable voting PN in a general election.
This is the grave responsibility that the members of the PN executive committee have to carry in the next few days – a responsibility that can become an opportunity to consolidate the PN’s popularity.