As things currently stand, the stars seem aligned for Bernard Grech to become the Nationalist Party’s next leader. He has consistently been ranked as the favourite in surveys, he has managed to build an enthusiastic campaign team, and his main message on the need to reunite a fractured party is sure to resonate with disillusioned PN voters.
From his talent for public speaking and his ability to connect with people on a personal level to the mere fact that he’s a political outsider, Grech seems to tick all the boxes that made Delia popular to begin with, but without the baggage and divisive attitude that repelled so many PN supporters.
However, there’s still a way to go until the election on 3rd October and Delia, while an underdog, is still very much in this race.
Back in 2017, Delia emerged on the political scene with a simple but powerful message – the PN had lost so many elections in a row because it had grown out of touch with the Maltese public and because an ‘establishment’ refused to give up control over the party. It was high time for a root-and-branch reform, and what better way to start this ‘new way’ than to elect a complete outsider as leader?
Delia had to deal with several stories about his financial affairs and his alleged involvement in a Soho prostitution ring early on, and even a public rebuke from then PN leader Simon Busuttil. Yet this didn’t harm his campaign; in fact, it might have even helped it as it fuelled his narrative of an ‘establishment’ desperate to see him fail so that it can maintain control over the party.
A lot has changed since then. With Delia in charge, the PN has only become more unpopular, as evidenced by its disastrous showing at last year’s MEP and local council elections and by one survey after the other.
It failed to capitalise from last year’s massive political crisis and the fall of the disgraced ‘Invictus’ Joseph Muscat, it didn’t manage to exploit cracks in the Labour Party in the subsequent leadership election, and it was largely absent from the debate over the health and economic fallout of COVID-19.
Now that Delia has lost the support of the majority of his MPs, including some who had strongly supported him three years ago, Malta has never had a weaker Opposition and that’s a scary prospect for democracy.
And yet the narrative that propelled Delia to the top in the first place is still very much in play.
In a nutshell, Delia’s campaign message portrays him as a courageous and resilient leader whose drive to bring new people into the party encountered serious resistance by a number of established politicians who are scared these newcomers will oust them from their seats.
“If I did what my predecessors did, I wouldn’t have encountered any internal disturbance because everyone would have kept their place and would have been pleased, but what about those who left us before 2013?” Delia argued on TVM’s discussion show Xtra recently. “People voted me in because they wanted change and I will keep on renewing this party. I’m not persisting but persevering because I believe I’m doing the right thing.”
In Delia’s narrative, the ‘establishment’ did everything it could to force him out – from refusing to work with him on policy issues, to mudslinging about his financial affairs and contact with Yorgen Fenech, to trying to score political mileage out of his family affairs to politicking behind the scenes to ensure only a single challenger faces him in the upcoming leadership election.
They went so far as to to stop his weekly radio interview on the party’s own media!
Just as Grech has resisted targeting Delia so as not to stray from his main campaign focus of party unity, so too has Delia resisted targeting Grech, who is after all the most prominent new face to join the PN since 2017.
In fact, Delia has tried to take ownership of Grech’s rise to the top, recounting how he had personally involved him in an internal policy forum and how he had encouraged him to contest the next general election, an offer Grech had accepted.
Rather than go after his direct contestant, Delia’s target is, as it was in 2017, an unnamed ‘establishment’ which has pushed Grech forward and which is operating in the shadows behind his campaign.
Of course, reality is much more complicated than this. Many PN MPs are certainly concerned that they’ll lose their seats in the next general election… not because they’ll be drowned by a wave of new faces but because they’ll suffer from Delia’s unpopularity among the electorate by proxy.
Many are also frustrated that they tried their best to work but were ignored by Delia, who instead had to spend time spend fighting off his own personal controversies.
However, in politics, perception is king. This race will ultimately come down to a battle between Delia’s and Grech’s main campaign messages, and which one is more believable.
Moreover, Delia has intertwined his campaign message with a renewed vigour when speaking out on the thorny issue of migration and the ‘ghettoisation‘ of parts of Malta. Although he’s not offering any solutions, many people will surely appreciate that he’s voicing their concerns, and if they find themselves agreeing with something he’s saying, they’ll naturally be more amenable to the rest of his message.
Delia has already proven three years ago that he’s a formidable campaigner and while he was the favourite back then and the underdog now, he can actually play this card to his advantage just as Robert Abela successfully did in the PL leadership election earlier this year.
People tend to find it easier to warm up to an underdog and if a large chunk of PN members are currently on the fence, this could help swing the election in Delia’s favour.
Lest we forget, although surveys are predicting a comfortable victory for Grech, they had also predicted a comfortable victory for Chris Fearne. In fact, Fearne was so sure he was going to win that he actually publicly invited Abela to a victory party, in what turned out to be a fatal political move.
Before he can plan ahead and confidently utter statements like ‘Labour is seriously worried about my popularity’, Grech must learn from the errors of the past and focus on the task at hand.
He might be the favourite right now, but a lot can happen between now and 3rd October and public opinion can change overnight. Writing Delia off as a dead man walking could well prove to be Grech’s biggest mistake.