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PN at the crossroads - Martin Scicluna

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

For 17 years, between 1996 (when I returned to Malta) and 2013, I voted for the Nationalist Party because they were well-led, organised and unified behind their leader. I have not voted PN since then.

I mention all this simply to point out that I am one of the many thousands of “switchers” who have swung so decisively behind Joseph Muscat and his Labour Party. More importantly, though, I still retain a respect for PN and all that it once stood for.

For the last 12 months the party has gone through traumatic times. In the lead-up to the 2017 general election, called because of egregious accusations that the Prime Minister’s wife was the owner of the so-called Egrant account and had received €1 million from Azerbaijan, I wrote the following just a few days before the election:

“[Simon] Busuttil is guilty of ratcheting up the accusations of ‘corruption’ for party political reasons, based on the allegations and speculations of [Daphne Caruana Galizia] who has waged a campaign of mudslinging, innuendo and disinformation modelled on the Breitbart assault on Hilary Clinton.

“Busuttil is guilty at best of being naïve and showing a lack of statesmanship. At worst, of slander, a disregard for establishing the truth and gross political misjudgement in stoking international opprobrium against Malta.”

I was much criticised for what I wrote, including by my colleagues and friends in the now defunct, (supposedly) non-partisan Today Public Policy Institute, from which I had stood down four months earlier after 10 years as director general.

I have reproduced these extracts not simply because what I wrote has been vindicated by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja’s inquiry, but because it conveys why I think that the leader of the Nationalist Party, Adrian Delia, was right in principle to invite Busuttil’s resignation from the PN.

Busuttil’s reckless leadership in allowing himself – and his party – to be led by the nose by Caruana Galizia, who convinced him and his supporters – on the basis of a toxic creed of conspiracy theory and class prejudice – that the Prime Minister and his wife had been complicit in major acts of corruption led directly to PN’s disastrous defeat.

Although last week saw party elders attempting to rebuild fences between different factions in the PN, it is a broken force. Disunited and at war with itself, no amount of papering over the cracks will remedy it in the short term. Delia, under pressure, has decided to reverse his decision to suspend Busuttil from the party – although he still stripped him of his responsibilities for good governance, a politically potent and public rebuke.

Delia’s leadership, nor any efforts to improve the PN’s organisation and debt-ridden finances will succeed unless it stands unified, not divided

While Dr Delia’s move to withdraw Busuttil’s suspension is undoubtedly a sign of weakness, the bottom line is to recognise that politics is the art of the possible. To achieve this almost always requires compromises – sometimes major compromises.

Delia was undoubtedly right in the light of the authoritative conclusions of Magistrate Bugeja’s inquiry to hold Busuttil publicly and politically accountable for his gross misjudgement in supporting the Egrant fable spun by Caruana Galizia; and the PN’s catastrophic defeat. But he himself misjudged completely the residual support in the PN for Busuttil (who I continue to maintain is a decent man, but a weak leader).

Does Delia’s reversal undermine his authority as Opposition leader? The compromise reached by Delia with the Busuttil faction leaves him in office as leader of the Opposition and leader of the party, but not in power. In an effort to stop his party breaking up, his position and authority – already weak – have been further eroded.

Being the leader of the Opposition is the most thankless task in politics. All that the Opposition leader has is a voice. He has no capacity to act, except within the confines of his own party. But in a thriving democracy it is vitally important that the government – especially one which has such a commanding majority as Prime Minister Muscat’s – should have an effective Opposition to hold it to account.

It should be seen as the government-in-waiting and unless the electorate regards it in that way, the leader of the Opposition has failed in his job.

The compromise Delia has reached has weakened his authority. But it is also manifestly clear that unless the Busuttil faction – and the pseudo-political activists that support it – resolves immediately to end the bitter internal disunity they are causing and the breakdown of party discipline, the PN’s fate as a major player in Maltese politics will be doomed.

Unless the internal party discussions which have led to this compromise include promises by the Busuttil faction to be loyal to him, Delia’s efforts to reinvent the PN and win back the trust not just of its core supporters but of the country will be severely handicapped.

We shall have to wait and see.

As to whether this step will be enough to turn a new page and lead to reconciliation between various factions within the PN, I wish I could be optimistic about the way ahead. Leadership is key.

Delia must be given a chance to heal the wounds that have split the party as a result of the Egrant debacle and Caruana Galizia’s earlier efforts to turn the party against him.

Busuttil must demonstrate loyalty to his successor. He has a pivotal role to play, but not an unassailable one. Delia must also learn the art of exercising restraint in his actions dealing with his fractious and demoralised party. He must learn the lessons of the last election and concentrate on inspiring the party by re-instilling discipline and its desire for power.

Beyond this, he has to reach out to the country at large and demonstrate that a Nationalist government under his leadership would work for the many, not just the privileged few, by developing new policies.

Ultimately, however, neither Delia’s leadership, nor any efforts to improve the PN’s organisation and debt-ridden finances will succeed unless it stands unified, not divided. It was internal party disunity (and corruption) that largely brought down the Gonzi government in 2013.

The PN is at a cross-roads between survival and extinction. If Nationalists continue to fight one another and their year-old leader they will be out of office for years to come – and could split irrevocably. And that wouldn’t be in the interests of any of us.

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