Thursday 17 January 2019

The lean, mean party machine

Photo above from

And so it came to be.

Barring any unexpected turn of events on Wednesday when the PN delegates will vote for the last man standing, Simon Busuttil will be elected the new leader of the Nationalist party.  He needs two thirds of the vote to be confirmed, and with Mario de Marco shrewdly bowing out of the race late last night, it’s pretty much a done deal.

It has long been rumoured that it would be Simon, because he is the one whom ‘the party machine’ wanted all along. The party machine; a curious phrase which, to me, evokes images of this snarling, omnipotent creature which needs to be fed and kept docile, hidden away in some dank dungeon away from prying eyes.  The Labour party too, has its own version of the party machine, the one which kept Alfred Sant at the helm long after he should have resigned, and the one which made sure Joseph Muscat would emerge victorious during the PL’s own leadership race.

Or so they say. I have often wondered if this party machine really does come into force or if it’s all just an urban legend. Last night’s result, however, brought it all into sharp focus that the ones who are actually deciding are not the hapless delegates (who are supposed to be representing the supporters) but unseen faces; the powers behind the throne. Why else would the clear popular sentiment which was loudly telling the PN that they preferred Mario de Marco be so completely ignored?

Paul Borg Olivier told us in an interview that the delegates are always free to make up their own minds and choose the person they think is best for the job, and “God forbid the party favours any of the candidates, because it would make the contest unfair.” Well, as we say caustically in Maltese, “xi tridu jghid?” (what do you expect him to say?)

Sometimes I liken these leadership contests to a game of Chinese whispers in the ears of the delegates who seal the fate for both parties, and really for the nation as well, because whoever they choose end up being the Prime Ministers and the Prime Ministers-in-waiting. Don’t let the smiles and air of bonhomie we saw yesterday fool you. The lobbying behind-the-scenes is furious and ruthless, not only because of the power which will be bestowed on the winner, but more tellingly, the power-by-association of those who do the canvassing.

It was clear from the facial expressions yesterday as de Marco thanked his ‘team’, that those who were backing him rather than Simon, were probably more sorely disappointed than the politician himself. After all, once you have made it clear that you were openly working hard to get your man elected, you have pretty much been branded as belonging to a particular faction within the party – just as those who backed Dalli rather than Gonzi in 2004 will forever carry that label. But this time round the party machine is being ultra careful and has been hard at work, deliberately spinning the difference between the two contests. This time round, not a breath of dissent will be allowed to waft its way out of the Stamperija.

But, time will tell.

Yes, the speeches which conceded defeat were all gracious and honourable, and yes this reflects the politically savvy personalities of the men involved. But human nature is what it is – let’s just say I saw certain dagger-like glances yesterday which betrayed the true feelings behind the carefully stretched smiles.

And now that the party machine has made sure that the man it wanted will be the PN leader, the real test begins. Facebook last night was rife with comments of dismay by PN supporters who wanted de Marco to win. Even more interesting were the comments by those who are not aligned with any particular party, the floaters, who felt that the PN’s only hope was to choose the more moderate, more approachable and definitely less confrontational de Marco.

Which brings me to my real question: why did the party machine feel that Simon was their man?  I have been trying to figure this out ever since the names of the contenders were made official and it was clear which way the wind was blowing. Why didn’t the party back de Marco? Some say it was because he did not stick his neck out enough during the campaign, while others feel that Simon was unjustly accused of losing the election when he only came on board at the last minute, so he should be ‘given another chance’.

A gift for satirists - photo by Bis-serjeta, bis-serjeta biss

A gift for satirists – photo by Bis-serjeta, bis-serjeta biss

This warped way of thinking is symptomatic of a political party which is still in denial and has not yet come to terms with its crushing defeat. It is still at the stage where it wants someone else to blame, has latched on to various scapegoats but stubbornly refuses to call a spade a spade. Unfortunately (for the PN), by choosing Simon over de Marco, the party has basically announced that it will be dishing out more of the same.  In his last interview Simon Busuttil was back to talking about the colour of Muscat’s ties, while pointing out that he arrived on the scene, “when the ship was already sinking”.  That was yet another nice, deft, underhanded blow to Gonzi’s leadership if I’ve ever heard one (but said with a smile, of course).

It is these types of smarmy, snide remarks which put people off the man during the campaign. Simon’s behaviour reminds me of a schoolboy who eggs  his mates on to do something wrong and then snitches on them, while smiling charmingly at the teacher, proclaiming “wasn’t me”.

Oh well, to use another sardonic Maltese colloquialism “huma jafu” (they know best).  One thing is for sure, the satire world is happy.

Meanwhile a certain Burmarrad resident must have fallen asleep with a smile on his face last night.






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