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Rise of the rabble soother

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Barring something very unexpected, like winning a grand lottery, Adrian Delia is on course to accept the leadership of the Nationalist Party on Saturday. His fellow law students remember Delia as a rabble-rouser, always in the thick of rag-day pranks, and now he has roused enough of the PN membership to expect an overwhelming victory.

The reasons for his popularity have been often misrepresented or misunderstood, by his supporters as much as his detractors. The word charisma is bandied a lot. But when a word covers shamans and Charles Manson as well as John Paul II and George Clooney, and in a country where ‘charisma’ was also (briefly) attributed to Archbishop Paul Cremona, it doesn’t explain much.

No, of course Delia is not really against the PN’s ‘establishment’, if it even exists. Whether you take it to mean someone occupying a senior position in the party, or a member of a longstanding prominent Nationalist family, or a former minister... Delia’s ark, bobbing on the rising sea of Labour voters, has exemplars of the lot.

And no, of course it’s not collective hysteria around a cult figure. In the main, Delia supporters aren’t groupies.

Nothing I’ve heard from some of his most ardent campaigners suggests they see him as some kind of prophetic figure with remarkable insight into politics and society.

On the contrary, his superficial knowledge of both is apparent even to them. With some of his close collaborators, he has been candid in admitting he has a lot to learn from them about the political game (while confident he will).

And, when he says he’ll commission a sociological study of Maltese society, it’s clear he’s out of touch with society, the social sciences (which would need several professional lifetimes to deliver something meaningful), and politics itself.

When was the last time that such a monumental study was needed for a political party to win a general election and deliver successful policies?

So what do they see in him, those of his campaigners and supporters who really are in it for love of their party? They speak of someone who has instilled hope and enthusiasm in large swathes of the party members, particularly in the south.

Running for Eddie’s old job, while sounding like a hyper Austin Gatt: that explains both the congruence and the incongruity of Delia’s campaign

I asked one campaigner to describe what being on the brink of victory felt like. He described it as a revolution driven by ordinary people, activists and members who had long felt disenchanted by the party – the magic of belonging having long faded – and alienated by some of the policy and strategic decisions. It’s a process long in the making, preceding the 2013 electoral defeat.

With many members, Delia has reversed that. If you’re going to attribute a personal charisma to him, then it’s that of a new lover, not of a politician. Members have fallen in love with the party again. They’ve found someone in tune with their intuitions, who makes them feel young and adventurous once more.

On its own that analogy isn’t fair, either to Delia or to his supporters. There is a different kind of charisma, that of the group which feels the grace and effervescence of its key symbols and rituals. With Delia, they seem to make sense once more because he evokes the times and language of the grand old days of repeated victories.

This requires explanation. For he speaks very differently – in terms of register, vocabulary, and rhetoric – from his modern predecessors. They were rabble soothers – rising above the melee, calling for determined calm when democracy was on the brink, reassuring in the face of economic upheavals. Rabble-rousing – the hot, fiery, adversarial, in-the-trenches pep-talk – was left to the secretary-general.

It was a division of Labour upon which the PN leader’s statesman-like demeanour depended. It was a deliberate cultivation of charisma-lite, to be tapped during election campaigning, but otherwise better left understated in a modern society where voters pride themselves on not being disciples.

Delia, however, speaks like a secretary-general (paradoxically, for someone who needs a crash course in how to do the job). Or at least the way PN secretaries-general did up till nine years ago. You can understand why many members feel a rush when they hear that rhetoric again – it’s the kind of rapport they had with a secretary-general who doubled up as cajoler, enthuser, peacemaker, mess-cleaner and, yes, bully, when a bully was needed.

Running for Eddie’s old job, while sounding like a hyper Austin Gatt: that explains both the congruence and the incongruity of Delia’s campaign.

And it raises the question: is this the kind of ‘charisma’ that wins elections? Or the kind that reduces its group to a sect with a strong base but low ceiling of support, like the Tea Party in the US?

Delia’s honest supporters are banking on his ability to build a rapport with the electorate at large. But voters on Saturday need to remember this: since Eddie Fenech Adami, the country – never mind the PN – has always voted for charisma-lite: the rabble soother who reassured and co-opted the frustrated majority of a highly aspirational society.

Even Joseph Muscat has been a soother. The rabble-rousing and intimidation is left to others. But from Muscat’s days as Opposition leader to his days in government, he has always sought to soothe his audience that they would do well. They could keep their dreams, if they stuck with him.

For the past 40 years, our politics have been marked by the rise of the rabble soother. On Saturday, the PN is going to vote for a lifelong rabble-rouser. Oh well, it’s just one more thing he’ll have to learn from his aides.

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