Will PN change course today?

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

The Nationalist Party is holding its leadership election on Saturday, in which its tesserati (paid-up members) will have to decide whether to stick with embattled incumbent Adrian Delia or change course.

The 21,499 eligible tesserati may instead opt, as they had done when they picked Delia three years ago, to opt for another political outsider and lawyer, Bernard Grech.

Though voting opened at 8am today, the outcome of the election may have already effectively been decided, as no less than 5 days of early voting have been held – in part, as a precaution to limit crowding in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic – in which 76% of eligible voters cast their vote.

Just over 5,000 tesserati are yet to do so, and their number will inevitably include those who have chosen not to participate in the process.

Delia’s history of controversy

Delia proved to be a controversial successor to Simon Busuttil, attracting controversy from the moment he threw his hat into the ring in the wake of the 2017 election. His critics notably included Daphne Caruana Galizia, who alleged that Delia facilitated money laundering for a Soho prostitution racket.

But in the first PN leadership election which was left up to the tesserati, Delia managed to defeat Chris Said, Alex Perici Calascione and Frank Portelli with a populist campaign that appealed to the party’s core supporters.

However, such a stance appears to have alienated the liberal-leaning voters the PN also relies on, and amid various missteps, the party’s poor performance in last year’s European Parliament elections – once more, it only won two seats to Labour’s four – appears to have boosted efforts to replace Delia ahead of time. Delia survived the aftermath of the election, though his right-hand man Pierre Portelli ended up one of its casualties, resigning from head of the party media.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, ultimately, was the revelation that Delia exchanged messages on WhatsApp with Yorgen Fenech, the erstwhile Tumas Group CEO that stands accused of ordering the murder of Caruana Galizia. The conversations took place in the first half of 2019, before Fenech’s arrest, but after it was revealed that he owned 17 Black, the Emirati company which, leaked emails show, was set to provide funds to secretive offshore structures set up by Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

Delia ended up losing a confidence vote within the PN parliamentary group, followed up by a similar loss in the executive committee.

But he refused to step down, and ultimately, the PN general council defied his wishes and called for a leadership election instead of yet another confidence vote, this time among the party members. As he had promised, he immediately confirmed his intention to contest.

Enter Grech

Various potential challengers had been touted, with the first possibly being Therese Comodini Cachia, the MP who had been proposed to serve as Opposition Leader by the PN MPs who had lost faith in Delia.

However, President George Vella effectively washed his hands of the matter and insisted that the same constitutional provision which allowed him to replace an Opposition Leader who had lost the confidence of the Opposition forced him to reappoint Delia as the leader of the largest party in Opposition. The decision proved controversial and was criticised by numerous Constitutional experts, not least because it suggested that Parliament was at the mercy of political party structures.

Popular MEP Roberta Metsola was also mentioned, as was Mark-Anthony Sammut, a former PN executive committee president.

All three hail from the party’s more liberal wing, as had Busuttil, but ultimately, the opposition to Delia coalesced around Grech, who had once campaigned against the introduction of divorce. The choice of Grech does suggest, at least in part, a pragmatic move from those seeking Delia’s removal; he may well be the candidate most likely to defeat Delia among the tesserati.

Whether that is truly the case, however, will only be known tonight.