The race ahead

The race ahead

The field of candidates is starting to take shape.

From within the parliamentary group, Chris Said has come forward and at least one other may be getting ready to step up. Claudio Grech keeps being mentioned, one should think not merely because of wishful thinking. From among the party officials, Alex Perici Calascione is publicly flirting with the idea of running. Adrian Delia swooped down from the great outer circle and I saw another unknown (to me) vigorously shaking hands at PN HQ yesterday telling bemused councillors he too intends to be their trusted leader.

Right now candidates will be more in a receiving mode, than actually transmitting much. They will be assessing their strengths and weaknesses with the party councillors who will short-list them to the final two who will actually have to campaign publicly for the 20,000+ votes of the party membership.

In this preliminary phase we should not expect to actually hear much from the candidates in the way of detail. Their engagements will be personal. They will seek to speak to each and every councillor and try in the few minutes they will have alone with them to give them a rush of nostalgia for the heady victorious days in the party’s past and projecting them on a credible, graspable future.

To do that they will string together an elevator pitch that will touch the pain points party councillors are in perpetual agony over: ‘re-organising grass-root campaigning’, ‘redressing exclusions and welcoming back lost sheep’ but ‘keeping out the traitors’, ‘revamping the party’s media’, ‘recruiting new party officials’ and generally bringing the party back to winning form.

The elevator pitch will not be enough. Most councillors do not take pitches at face value. They will challenge the candidates and they will expect clear and competent answers that prove awareness of detail and experience of errors past. At this stage of the campaign, the outsiders will come in with a distinct disadvantage. Their appreciation of inside history, of who’s really who, of clumsy episodes that never made it to the public domain, will be limited to the quality of those who brief them. And those who brief them will be doing so within the limits of their own experience and coloured by their own biases which the new candidates would be inheriting wholesale.

The party stalwarts running for the election will know the stories behind most faces they will be speaking to. That is mostly a head-start. It will also be a disadvantage in some respects as only the newbies will never have slighted any of the councillors whether by some real or perceived offense.

It is hard work to have 1,500 conversations, particularly in July and August when many people would rather and are anyway likely to be on holiday. It is also hard work because people often do not realise this is unpaid work for the candidates and their handlers. And most of them have already been grossly neglecting their personal, professional commitments in the months leading up the last election.

When people speak about the need of new blood in party roles, they often under-estimate how difficult it is to find people willing to pay the huge price of working spectacular hours for nothing or close to nothing for the gratification of the sort of brutal name-calling that goes with this game.

The party outsiders running for leadership have hopefully calculated the opportunity cost of doing this for the years to come. If not they’re in for a shock.

Once the list is whittled down to two, the nature of the campaign should change drastically. At least I hope it does. There is no realistic hope of campaigning directly with over 20,000 people in August and September without an over the public airwaves and social media campaign. The conditions of that campaign ensure that the participants are not just the candidates and the franchise that will chose one over the other. It will involve the broad national community who will assess the state of play of the PN by the performance of all the actors in this drama.

Also if there is a clear single leader in the short-listing stage, it is reasonable to anticipate the runner-up to withdraw from the race and support the designated leader in a confirmation exercise with the party members.

Whether we hear it from two candidates, or as is quite possible, from just the one, the second stage of this election should, I would argue, no longer limit itself to party mechanics, tactics, resources, funding and the other inward navel-gazing considerations that the general public is not all that concerned with.

Because even if it’s not the general public voting at that stage, the party members will be choosing the candidate that will be facing the general public at the only election that counts, some years down the line. And party members should be less concerned with the butterflies in their collective stomach and more on what chemistry can be hoped for between chief and his or her nation.

At that point we will need to hear the candidate’s or candidates’ clear vision for the country. They need to spell out how they see Malta in 2035 and what they will do to bring us there. Their vision must be bold and ambitious. It needs to surprise us and be beyond what we could have imagined was possible without the leader’s inspiring vision and articulation. Whilst surprising and unpredictable, it needs to be believable and plausible.

One hopes they are now busy writing. The way the PN acquits itself over the next 3 months will have a determining impact on the party’s future over the next 4 years and on whether it will be for the PN to write the next great chapter of its history and the history of the country.