Tuesday 11 August 2020

Identity politics: the challenge of finding leaders who best represent us

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When you attempt to analyse it, this whole business of who is chosen as a political party leader to represent a large chunk of the population is often quite arbitrary. In this process, a person seems to be plucked out from obscurity by fate, and dropped into a position where they have to speak and make decisions in the name of tens of thousands (and in other countries, in the name of millions).   Sometimes they ambitiously put themselves forward, and at other times they are handpicked and pushed into the role as successors with varying degrees of success.

Let us take Joseph Muscat who, despite his eventual downfall, was undeniably a success as a crowd-puller. He appeared with a wide smile out of the blue, leaving his comfortable lifestyle as an MEP in Brussels with his young family in tow, but was initially dismissed by many as a 34-year-old upstart who was “Alfred Sant’s poodle”. In the end, he breathed new life into a defeated Labour Party and could not have been further removed from Sant’s style of politics if he had tried. His appeal lay in the fact that his life mirrored that of many younger generation aspirational PL voters who had moved on from their parents’ working class roots, yet still hung on to their left-wing beliefs.

On the other hand, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was handed the reins by Dom Mintoff who resigned in 1984 because he realised he could no longer occupy the role of PM without the majority of the people behind him (in the 1981 elections Labour had won the majority of seats but the PN had won the majority of votes, an anomaly which led to political tension and violence).  KMB, as he was colloquially known, a dour-faced bachelor, never really managed to strike a chord with the public, no matter how much the Labour Party media machine tried to make him likeable. It was not his fault; he was simply not cut out to fill anyone’s shoes, least of all the gigantic shoes of Mintoff, who to this day is still considered a Labour icon.  It also did not help matters that KMB was placed in the role of Prime Minister without ever having contested an election (he was co-opted to Parliament).  For the duration of his term he was referred to sneeringly as Dr Zero (with reference to his zero number of votes).  In politics, it is one’s public image which counts, and KMB with his shock of white hair cut into a military crew cut, and his perpetual scowl, left many people cold.  

In short, any leader who hopes to make it has to be palatable to a wide cross-section of voters.  And when you have yet to surmount the hurdles of trying to win over your own people, you can also forget about being able to woo any floating voters who can only gaze incredulously at all the infighting being carried out in full public view. 

Three years down the line, the PN are still re-living Groundhog’s Day, going around in circles over their leadership problem which has been plauging them since 2017.

As hard as it still is for many to digest, Adrian Delia was voted in by the majority of card-carrying members (tesserati) after the party changed its statute (the genius who suggested this new way of choosing a leader must be kicking himself).   However, it was clear from the very first time his name was mentioned that, unlike Simon Busuttil, Lawrence Gonzi, Eddie Fenech Adami and Gorg Borg Olivier, the new kid on the block was not going to be proudly anointed and taken into the loving embrace of the entire PN base.  He was not going to be blessed by the benediction of a well-oiled PR machine, nor was he going to be made electable by the PN politician-grooming department which for decades has always had the best people on board who knew just how to mould any potential candidate and make him leadership-worthy. 

In fact, the opposite happened, and the shockwaves of the first of many diatribes against him by Daphne Caruana Galizia was like a jigger which shatters the silence as it starts breaking ground when excavation begins. The echoing reverberations of those words led to the first cracks within the party which have simply widened into an unbridgeable chasm over time.

Adrian Delia came out of left field, and no one probably expected him to win the leadership race. But he did,  and there he is still, adamantly, stubbornly and some say, quite legitimately, refusing to be ousted by his rebel backbenchers.  As I write, his future is still not certain, and neither is that of (former MEP now MP) Therese Comodini Cachia who has been wheeled out and nominated as his possible replacement.  The President is still holding individual meetings with all the Opposition MPs in order to decide whether he can apply article 90 of the Constitution, which gives him the right to remove the Leader of the Opposition if he no longer has the support of the majority of his MPs.   

Meanwhile, no matter what happens, it cannot be any more obvious that the PN as we know it will soon cease to exist.  Neither of the two factions will ever bow down to the other, and all one needs to confirm this is to read what is being said online.  If even that does not convince you that there is an ideological rift within the Nationalist party, then the viral videos of rough-around-the-edges Delia supporters screeching obscenities outside of the Stamperija should be an eye-opener, as should the comments underneath the videos.  The PN has a profound identity crisis and neither Delia nor Comodini Cachia have it in them to be the unifying figures which can patch up what has turned out to be one hot mess.   The old stalwarts of the party, who still reminisce about the glory days of religio et patria will never accept Delia. Those who saw in the more down-to-earth Delia a chance to break away from the elitism label which has branded the PN for so long, take one look at Comodini Cachia and shudder.  

I find it surprising that, when it came to the crunch, the rebel backbenchers were unable to come up with someone who could have bridged the gap between the two sides.  It is also unfathomable to me how those who have been so dogged in their persistence to see the back of Delia have not yet grasped that one of the most important ingredients of any new leader is one simple word: charisma.  Delia’s pugnacious style may be off-putting to some, but he obviously appeals to a certain type of PN supporter who have had enough of insipid leaders. Whereas if I had to listen to more than five minutes of Comodini Cachia’s whining voice I might fall into a coma out of which I might never emerge. 

I have seen a number of posts praising her intelligence, her capabilities and the fact that she has no ‘baggage’ (although no one has forgotten how she tried to hot-foot it back to Brussels after the PN lost, even though she had won a Parliamentary seat). And, of course, there is also the rather inevitable, misguided, delight because she is a woman, which is frankly neither here nor there.  In fact, she immediately put her foot in it by coming out with a rather brusque status on FB, “I’m not in favour of abortion! Is that clear enough?” which only succeeded in ruffling everyone’s feathers because of the arrogant tone that brooked no further discussion.  On the other hand, the PN has always been conservative so her stand was not surprising to me (so maybe those who are pro-choice should reconsider whether they are in the right party?)

Most of what I have read sounded like a forced attempt to sell her to us as the right choice.  But spin cannot compensate for something which is not there, which is that integral ‘something’ which one either has or does not have. PN supporters who are fed up of Delia and his dubious past (and present) might settle for Comodini Cachia as an interim leader but I am curious as to what that is going to solve exactly.  She will definitely not win over the Delia crowd (they have made that perfectly clear) and I doubt that those who have been let down by the Labour Party will be exactly revved up to vote for her either.

The conundrum for Delia, of course, is that he can no longer ignore the MPs who have made it openly clear that they do not want to work with him.  Thousands of PN supporters who agree with the rebel MPs have shown in poll after abysmal poll that they will not vote as long as Delia is at the helm.  A leader who is seen as such a divisive figure is not only unelectable but a hinderance to the very party he claims to represent. If it were me, I could not imagine hanging on when I am simply not wanted, but Delia refuses to budge (and even this in itself has been described as suspicious and all sorts of rumours of a pact continue to swirl).  His argument is that he cannot be removed from Party leader (and ergo Opposition leader) because he was voted in democratically by party members according to the statute, and on the contrary, it is the rebel MPs who should leave the party.  Legal experts have pointed out that, technically, he can remain Party Leader and Comodini Cachia can be appointed Opposition Leader, although how that will work in practice is a mystery to me. 

If Delia gets his way and the MPs who voted against him are kicked out of the party, they will be free to form their own party, which is what should have happened from the get go three years ago.  However, he will still be facing the same dilemma of not only trying to lure back those who have turned their backs on the PN, but more crucially, of presenting to the voting public a well-defined party identity with concrete proposals of how to solve the country’s problems.  The Labour Government needs to be held accountable, now more than ever, and that cannot happen as long as the Opposition remains in perpetual disarray. 

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