You must love me... and the PN

Over Easter I found myself catching up on Go Stars – something I rarely watch. Every so often, I try to fit six months worth of unwatched TV into a long weekend, to justify the little extras I can clearly live without. I finally got round to re-watching the Madonna adaption of Evita.

The PN had become a walking oxymoron – the party that brought so much change refused to change and remained firmly entrenched in its conservative comfort zone

When I got to You Must Love Me, one of my – and probably everyone’s else’s – favourite songs in the repertoire, I found myself thinking of the Nationalist Party. And not just the party’s top brass or their candidates, who may well be experiencing that bleak, game-over feeling. But of individual, true-blooded supporters, who had absolutely nothing to do with the defeat, and who may well feel as – if not more – lost, terrified and completely let down.

“Where do we go from here? This isn’t where we intended to be; we had it all – I believed in you, you believed in me.”

I guess the opening lyrics make it one of those one-size-fits-all songs, and yet, in life, certainties do disappear just like that, as quickly as they may have appeared. Gone is the PN’s high moral ground; gone is the feeling of superiority and the unquestionable divine right to govern forever; gone are the deep-rooted links to the entrepreneurs and tycoons; gone is that smug and snug feeling that things will always work out.

The election for party leader is the first – and possibly most significant – opportunity for the party to get back on track, re-adjust its GPS system and re-align itself once more with the realities of contemporary Malta.

The PN had become a walking oxymoron – the party that brought so much change refused to change and remained firmly entrenched in its conservative comfort zone, still high on the power of its once glorious leaders.

This is one of the first challenges the PN leadership will take on. The PN has to think and act like a political party in much the same way the Church has to think and act like a religious institution. To its credit, the Church steered clear of the political arena, even during the divorce debate. The PN did not. It laid too much emphasis on the ‘religio’ side of its motto and wound up alienating many of its core voters who felt they were being subjected to commandments instead of laws.

The last thing the PN needs is a leader who will maintain the status quo or one who will call upon President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami at the first sign of trouble. It needs an all-questioning leader, who will challenge everything and everyone. One who will shake the party institutions; one who has no qualms letting go of anyone who fails to deliver; someone who can offer a credible opposition to a very strong government – the strongest government we have seen since Independence.

Ultimately, the leader will shoulder the responsibility of sorting out the party’s financial mess. Above all, he must be media-savvy. Politics today is not unlike reality television. We watch it as it happens, unadulterated by edits. Politicians are expected to expertly handle TV cameras, microphones, newspapers and of course the relentless and unforgiving social networks. These constantly shape public opinion.

The PN councillors will have to choose someone who ticks all of the above if the Nationalist Party is to make any sort of rebound. And by rebound I do not mean a victory at the next election. With a majority of 37,000, bar an economic downturn of seismic proportions, one can assume that this government will be returned in five, possibly even 10 years’ time. How long the PN remains in opposition depends as much on Labour’s performance as it does on the choice of PN leader. The councillors are hardly spoilt for choice. Let’s look at the line-up.

Ray Bugeja is your typical rebound lover and provides a perfect short-term and much-needed distraction. He’s the only one who comes without political baggage. Whether he’d be a long-term solution is anybody’s guess.

Francis Zammit Dimech could work as an interim solution to help kickstart the change process in time for the selection of a leader for the 2023 election. His 22 years of experience hardly allow him to be ‘the new kid on the block’ and he’s unlikely to effectively dislodge the party from its past.

This brings me to Simon Busuttil, who had all the new-kid-on-the-block credentials until he signed up for deputy leader. At the time, I voiced my scepticism, fearing he may have rushed in foolishly and virtually thrown away his triple letter score on a blank. To have taken on an insurmountable role others steered clear of, when the chips were down and the die cast, certainly makes him loyal and committed, though perhaps not as shrewd.

He’s undoubtedly an excellent debater in face-off interviews but failed to reach the same level of excellence as a public speaker and was uncharacteristically divisive. Possibly because, although perceived as ‘PN’s life-jacket’, he was thrown in at the deep end at a very critical time. Whether our collective memory will continue to associate him with a failed and discredited outgoing administration remains to be seen.

Mario de Marco is seen by many – though not by the PN party machine – as the safest bet. One of the more hardworking ministers, he delivered on many fronts. His success as a minister may ironically prove to be his downfall since it carved him a place in the old establishment.

During the campaign, he didn’t handle the media as effectively as I thought he would and frequently came across as atypically aloof and cutting. He certainly has the youthfulness, energy and the brains to mastermind the changes and is certainly one of their more liberal options. What he definitely lacks is the support of the current party structure –which actually may be the most attractive part of the equation.

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