The Nationalist Party’s General Council, that convened earlier this month, had its fair share of dreary and vacuous political speeches. Jerome Caruana Cilia’s address, for instance, springs to mindv – especially when compared with the contribution made by someone who used to occupy Cilia’s current role – that of Opposition spokesperson on public finances.
One can disagree with the positions taken by Mario de Marco, but compared to Jerome Caruana Cilia, he is a political colossus. The clearcut difference in style and substance of de Marco compared to Caruana Cilia explains greatly why the Nationalist Party has just gone through the largest electoral defeat in its history.
What did De Marco say to the party faithful? His was definitely not a speech replete with empty statements like Caruana Cilia’s. Instead, his speech was a clarion call for the moderates within the Nationalist Party, who are shocked at the narrative adopted by their leader. While these Nationalists disagree with Labour’s economic policy, for them the recent speeches of Bernard Grech are very worrying.
In the words of Mario de Marco: “I would rather spend five more years in Opposition than get elected to Government on a lie”. And what is the lie in question, one might ask? It is the path of right-wing populism. De Marco was adamant that populism is not the path that the PN should embark on. He said that such a path would go against the roots of the Nationalist Party – that is the Christian Democrat ideology; an ideology that does not seek to separate the population of a nation into two groups, one of which is then demonised and held as the source of all problems.
De Marco’s message was followed by other speeches in his support. For instance, Ranier Fsadni argued that what de Marco represents is fundamentally based on the Nationalists’ 1986 credo – the Fehmiet Bażiċi document. He said that the PN did not win elections when it was a conservative party, but rather it lost them when it became one. He also stated that the PN’s identity was formed fighting populism, and that many would leave the party if it turned populist.
Mario de Marco is widely held to be the representative of the liberal wing of the Nationalist Party – a wing that appears to be under threat of extinction in the new environment bred by Bernard Grech. Grech seems to believe that his only chance of survival is to align as much as possible to the right wing of the party, the one that in past decades would have been called the “irridentist faction”. This group, at present, primarily represented by former leader Adrian Delia, is populist to its very core.
Up to now Bernard Grech had been seen as part of the other main ideological faction of the PN, the one close to the Catholic Church. This faction, in general, does not hold negative feelings against foreigners and tends to push for integration. Grech, however, now believes that this faction is not strong enough for him to retain hold of the Nationalist Party. This is the case because he thinks that a contender like Roberta Metsola could well be able to command the control of both the liberal and Catholic wings of the party, while up to recently he had no support whatsoever among the supporters of Adrian Delia.
His calculated move towards the Delia faction is an attempt to garner support in a constituency that will not move towards Metsola, while trying to retain the support of the Catholic faction. The speech of Mario de Marco needs to be interpreted in this fashion. De Marco is trying to remind the Catholic faction of its inherent beliefs and that they should not allow themselves to align with the populist part of the Nationalist support.
On the other end of the spectrum, the populist faction is also moving against the liberal one. Rather than having to face another period of political irrelevance, they seem to be more than willing to adopt Bernard Grech as one of their own. At the same time, they continue to use bloggers and former members of Parliament to attack the liberal wing of the Party and argue that if the Nationalist Party is too closely aligned to the Labour Party on social values, it is highly unlikely to win.
One wing sees a move to the left as the only route to success, while the other points towards the right, looking at examples like Geert Wilders and Giorgia Meloni. This wing is currently ascendent, with Bernard Grech making it a point to argue in the Times of Malta that the issues this wing is championing are not populist, but reflected reality. He was adamant that he is not going to shift his position.
But besides this ideological contest, what is worrying to both factions is that the bulk of the new crop of Nationalist MPs appear to be completely devoid of any ideological inclinations. The future for the PN’s soul thus appears to be a contest between a limited number of ideologically-driven individuals, with most other players interested just in hanging on and hoping that, somehow, they will end up in government, just for the sake of being in office and with no clear social and political objectives to achieve.