In my post-election reflection published in this newspaper last week, I suggested that the Nationalist Party calmly takes its time to choose a new leader. I also suggested that in the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership.
As things stand it seems that there is no clear contender for the post. It would be beneficial to act wisely and slowly to ensure that a proper, open and deliberative leadership contest takes place. Acting rash can give an instant leader, but can have longer-term repercussions.
The current Nationalist leadership may decide otherwise and may have its good reasons to do so. Should this be the case, I still urge the party to conduct a comprehensive brainstorming exercise to identify the key challenges, opportunities and risks.
The PN should also conduct constant empirical and grounded social-scientific research on demographic trends, lifestyle concerns, aspirations, values and situations of people in Malta. Such research should be ongoing and should involve both quantitative and qualitative methods, from the analysis of big data to the ethnographic interpretation of micro-realities.
The party should also take heed of the various arguments being made of what type of leadership is required in Malta’s current context.
For example, one argument is that the new leader should be an excellent communicator, especially when one considers that Joseph Muscat is capable of turning risks into opportunities through his rhetorical skills. I suggest that Muscat’s declaration that he will not contest in the upcoming general election should also be interpreted within his skill set.
Another argument is that the new leader should be streetwise. Indeed, many voters may not be concerned with abstract theory, but may have more immediate concerns beyond the radars of party strategists. A key challenge here would be how to reconcile such concerns with the common good, with realistic policy and with electability. They often can and should be reconciled, but sometimes, red lines have to be drawn. Again, excellent communication is key.
Some commentators have also discussed the ideological orientation of the PN. I find this debate very interesting. My interpretation in this regard is that both the Nationalist and Labour parties are umbrella parties which are broader than the respective classic textbook definitions of Christian democracy and social democracy.
Indeed, both parties have internal spans across the centre-left and centre-right. They also both have their own traditions, loyalists, factions and other characteristics which go beyond political ideology and which are better interpreted within Maltese social, cultural and economic factors.
The parties sometimes may have peculiarities which may seem odd to observers from other contexts. For example certain liberals may feel more comfortable in the PN and certain conservatives may feel more comfortable in the Labour Party, and vice-versa. This may have to do with historic events for example in the 1960s and 1980s and also with more recent historic events such as Malta’s EU accession, the introduction of divorce, civil liberties and governance issues. This also has to do with political capital of respective party leaderships.
But differences may also have to do with certain dispositions within the respective parties. For example, Labour has inherited an anti-colonial nationalism and top-down centralism while the Nationalist Party is usually more open to a Europeanist legacy of deliberation and self-criticism. Then again, Labour is more in synch with certain cultures in Malta today.
It is therefore imperative that the new leader of the PN reconciles the various factions and traditions within it. And this should also mean that the leadership team as a whole reflects such diversity. A leader is only as good as the team around her or him.
Identity gives a sense of belonging to a party’s members and constituents. But identity itself is never a monolith, unless one opts for the absolutist road. It is the common denominator among diversity that gels a party together.
A politically relevant leadership should therefore be principled but flexible, reaching out to aspirations of plural identities of consumers, citizens, families, groups, categories and classes. Democratic reconciliation is key.