Leader of the pack
Leadership contests are usually accompanied with a fair amount of drama. Political anoraks revel in the intrigue behind the scenes, the formation of cliques and factions and all the shadowy power games taking place.
In this vein, I remember the Labour leadership contest of 1992, with the sending of anonymous letters about one of the contestants, allegations of vote-fixing and the emergence of the pantomime villain of the piece.
The leadership contest, which eventually saw Joseph Muscat making it to the top spot, was perhaps less eventful, but still had us wondering whether the party machinery was geared up behind one candidate or the other.
In the Nationalist camp, the leadership contest of 2004 was the most bitterly fought in recent memory, with Lawrence Gonzi and John Dalli battling it out behind clenched smiles and gritted teeth. The repercussions of that contest are felt up to the present day.
The ridiculous one-horse race the Prime Minister tried to pass off as a leadership contest earlier this year was laughed off and largely ignored by the public. Which brings us to the upcoming ‘contest between friends’ where Simon Busuttil and Tonio Fenech vie for the post of deputy leader of the Nationalist Party.
Well, on the face of it, it’s a contest for the role of second-in-command. In actual fact, it’s a fight for the future of the PN. If the Nationalist Party, headed by Gonzi, manages to pull off the seemingly impossible task of winning the next election, the deputy leader will be credited for giving the party a shot in the arm.
The winner’s aura will be a definite plus for the deputy leader when Gonzi eventually moves on. If, on the other hand, the PN crashes and burns at the polls, the Prime Minister’s days at the helm of the party are numbered. In that scenario, there will be a vacancy at the top. And a younger deputy would be in pole position for that slot.
Viewed in this light, the election for the post of deputy leader assumes greater importance. In the few short weeks from when Busuttil threw his hat in the ring, and was widely perceived to be cruising to victory, circumstances have changed. It’s a whole new ball game now that Fenech has bounced onto the scene – his nomination being endorsed by no fewer than 136 people – an embarrassment of riches there.
Rumour has it that the party grandees and the big beasts of the Nationalist Party are backing Fenech. He is the establishment figure, promising more of the same – no major shake-ups, no radical change in the outlook of the party. Fenech offers no new course of action, relying on his competence to win the day. That’s where I believe Busuttil has the edge over Fenech.
Both contenders can claim to be competent in their respective fields, but Busuttil is far more adept at reaching out to people and communicating with them. I’m not talking about his chance encounter with Franco Debono here, but about the MEP’s communication network, built up slowly along the years and providing a channel of communication with citizens.
On the face of it, at least, that puts Busuttil in a better position to reach out to the pale blue voters who feel alienated from inner party clique, which seems to be Fenech’s support base. One of the problems the PN faces is that it is perceived not to be open or accessible to those outside the inner circles.
The sudden mushrooming of websites and crowding of social media sites by Nationalist politicians before the election comes too late in the day and does not dispel the feeling of alienation that many feel with regards to the PN. Busuttil has described himself as an outsider as he works in the European Parliament, away from the sometimes claustrophobic local political scene. Perhaps what the PN needs is an outsider looking in to realise how other ‘outsiders’ perceive the PN.
There’s another reason which indicates that Fenech may not be a suitable candidate for the top leadership post. When considering potential leadership material, people would prefer to opt for the squeaky clean option – the candidate whose record is unblemished by gaffes or questionable decisions. In this regard Fenech’s accepting a freebie flight from well-known businessmen on a private jet to watch his favourite football team calls into question his judgement when it comes to the observance of the code of ministerial ethics.
Fenech’s supporters may claim that getting a freebie to watch Arsenal is not a hanging offence, but when you consider that acceptance of gifts may influence a politician’s discretion or give rise to a sense of obligation, it is immediately evident that such acceptance does not bode well for the politician concerned.
Whether these sort of ill-judged decisions are taken lightly by the party faithful and whether the backing of the party machinery is enough to swing the election Fenech’s way remains to be seen.
The outcome of this election may very well influence the fate of the PN for years to come.