The worrying crisis in the PN

Malta’s opposition party, the Nationalist Party, has taken a beating over the past 6 years. Many have written about the internal power struggle and the crisis they’re in. I think they’re missing the point. I think the damage is deeper than that.

I – Recent history

Between 1987 and 2013, the Nationalist Party (PN) ruled for 26 years, albeit with a short break. There was a brief Labour government between 1996 and 1998. The PN was the party in government for almost as long as I’ve been aware of politics.

Following its defeat in 2013 the party leader, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, resigned. He shouldered full responsibility for the electoral defeat. In doing so, Gonzi was dignified enough to accept that he could no longer be a leader of a political party. After all, if a leader cannot lead them to victory what else is he supposed to do?

Gonzi also resigned his seat from Parliament in July of that year. He went on record stating that someone “who can give the electorate all his energy” should take his seat. This was an honourable way out. He had tried his best, and took the responsibility which came with such a loss.

Dr Lawrence Gonzi

Dr Simon Busuttil took over as PN leader. He led the PN to another defeat in the 2017 elections. He resigned the day after the results came out. He did not resign his seat in Parliament, unlike his predecessor.

Was this wise?

II – Becoming a back-bencher

In theory you get elected because the electorate chooses you over other candidates. You’re there to represent them, not the party. If the people wanted you there for the duration of the next legislature, shouldn’t you stay? After all, you can always choose whether to run in the next election, right?

Wrong.

In my opinion, while you do represent the electorate you also are in it to win it. Busuttil was the leader of the opposition in 2017. His only task was to win an election. He failed. He resigned the leadership but staying in Parliament opened the door to a power struggle.

It was possible, in theory, that the party would rally around a new leader. Once they chose a new leader, it was obvious some in the PN thought this was not ideal.

Busuttil’s only task was to win an election and he failed.

“Somebody who has been a party leader […] cannot revert to being an ordinary back-bencher. […]

A former party leader turned back bencher is a bad idea. […] Those who cease to head their political party should also give up their parliamentary seat, not just to allow the party to move on without them, but also for the sake of their own dignity.”

Slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote these words in 20084. Her context at the time was the election the PL had lost. Her point is as valid then as it is in this case.

Dr Delia became the new leader with his predecessor’s shadow looming over him. This can’t have been easy.

So far, Delia hasn’t shown himself to be the best of candidates. There are people who would say, “In Busuttil’s day, this wouldn’t happen.”

That’s a little unfair.

The recent Egrant debacle gave Delia reason to call for Busuttil’s resignation. There was a lot in the news about reconciliation and negotiations.

As a result, depending on who you talk to you hear about one of two problems. Either the problem is Delia who has caused the crisis, or Busuttil who is meddling and should resign.

Dr Simon Busuttil

Which one of them is right?

III – Is this what the crisis is about?

Neither of them is.

The real problem is worse than whether a narcissist is better than a lame duck.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that the PN has no way of choosing a real leader.

Think about it.

When the party elected Gonzi he faced two other candidates. The party went through the usual process to pick a leader and Gonzi garnered 59% of the vote. Less than two-thirds of the party thought Gonzi would be worthwhile. While a comfortable majority, that’s a large number of people who think he wasn’t up to scratch.

When the party elected Busuttil he faced three other candidates. He garnered 50.3% of the vote. Still a majority but practically half the party took one look at him and shook its head.

When the party elected Delia he garnered 52.7% of the vote. Again, almost half of the people around him didn’t think he was good enough.

The way I see it, the PN has a flawed way of electing leaders.

The real problem is that the PN doesn’t know how to choose leaders

How can it fix this?

IV – What should it look like?

I’m glad you asked.

My main gripe is that the party elects leaders based on a simple election. The person to win will be the one who is best at convincing people he’s good enough. This is not the same as saying “the person to win will be the person who is the best leader.”

It’s just a trumped-up beauty contest. There’s no clear objective assessment of the candidates’ skill set.

If the PN asked me to design a new leadership contest it would look like this:

  1. Anyone in the party can put their name forward if they think they have what it takes. This would be the same as it is today.
  2. The party will then test their understanding of the issues the country faces. I’d do these tests in written form but I think interviews could work too. Answers should be reviewed by party elders (What I mean is people who have retired and who have at least 20 years of parliamentary experience). They should review answers without knowing who answered what. This eliminates bias. There should be a stiff threshold. If candidates cannot identify the issues facing the country, they’re eliminated. I think all the candidates except Delia really knew what the main issues of the day were at the time of their election. Perhaps Delia does know, but he doesn’t do a good job of showing it.
  3. The remaining candidates are then put through a further set of tests. They need to prove their leadership skills, their rhetorical skills and their charisma. Party elders could test this, or by a different group of people. This step eliminates candidates without leadership skills or rhetorical skills or charisma. With this the party can be sure the candidates have the necessary soft skills. Gonzi and Busuttil all had charisma but Busuttil lacked rhetorical skills. I also never saw Busuttil as a leader. He never inspired people the way previous great leaders have. Maybe it’s too soon to judge Delia, but if his press conferences are anything to go by, he doesn’t have all three skills. (Check out this press conference and my analysis of it)
  4. The party can then vote for their preferred candidate. At this point, the party knows the remaining candidates are of a high calibre. It won’t be about ‘Who is the most popular’.

Will this sort of thing work?

V – Crisis should be avoided

It could in practice but the PN is full of human beings. Few people would want a change which might make their own life more difficult in future.

But the PN needs a proper way of selecting leaders. It cannot continue to have leaders who are only popular with the party faithful. This will lead to another crisis in the future.

Until it does this the only way the PN can find a proper leader is by accident.

Share this article with someone who thinks the PN has a great way to select leaders

References

  1. Gonzi resigning PN leadership; Times of Malta; 2013-03-10
  2. Gonzi to quit politics; Ivan Camilleri; Times of Malta; 2013-05-11
  3. Gonzi says farewell; Times of Malta; 2013-07-11
  4. Dawk tal-parocca ta’ Stella Maris kburin bl-imgieba tal-iljun tal-bidla; Daphne Caruana Galizia; Running Commentary; 2008-03-10
  5. Adrian Delia wins PN leadership election with 52.7% of the vote; The Malta Independent; 2017-09-16
  6. Simon Busuttil wins first round of PN leadership election with 50%; The Times of Malta; 2013-05-04

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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