The upcoming deputy leadership elections in the PN will be an administrative and financial headache, quite apart from the politics involved. As with the leadership election, the long-winded process will climax with a ballot for the wider membership suffrage.
The whole thing does feel a little over the top. Those who have come to terms with the recent leadership election are looking forward to a period of settlement and consolidation. And those who haven’t, perceive the upcoming votes as moot and something they want little to do with.
It is tempting to wish the whole thing over.
First the rules. We start with the Executive Committee setting the dates of the election and appointing a new electoral commission since the one that served through the leadership election quit en bloc. If more than two candidates run for one of either posts, the party councillors are summoned for a first ballot to eliminate all but two. The candidate with a simple majority of all members’ votes in a convention wins the post, unless he or she are running uncontested in which case they need two-thirds of the valid votes cast.
Clearly the party statute is keen to ensure political legitimacy to the elected wanting to ensure the choice is not a mere formality but a proper ground-up process.
Having just “spoken”, party members are asked to speak again. And those who have come to terms with what they said in the beginning of this month, and those who wanted them to say what they said even before they said it, need to make sure that the next expression of the members’ will is consistent with the latest one.
Which is why reports going round that people who have long announced interest in the deputy leadership have been asked by the new leadership to back out to make way for preferred choices are a bit odd.
It is no surprise the new party leadership has favourites. This is natural. Everyone needs friends and allies. And everyone will seek the path of least resistance: they will make it easier for themselves if they can.
But party leaders also know better than to express a preference too obviously and too explicitly. For one they risk far worse political damage if the horse they openly back loses. Such a vote will be perceived as a protest against the leadership and damage their authority.
Donald Trump’s favourite for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s senatorial race lost last night to an anti-establishment rival. The ward lost the nomination. Donald Trump lost political ground and influence.
Joseph Muscat was less explicit than Donald Trump but hardly less transparent when he backed Helena Dalli to the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. When she lost to Chris Fearne, Labour’s leader was damaged and weakened. He had lost something of the immaculate sheen he had acquired when he wore the victorious armour that rid him of Anġlu Farrugia and Toni Abela.
One thing no leader goes as far as doing is to try to arrange the appointment of their favourites by forcing other candidates out of the race before the race happens. Without the political legitimacy of having won a vote, deputy leaders are perceived as puppets. Their support of the leader is seen as subservient and the payment of a debt.
When Lawrence Gonzi planned for Tonio Borg’s replacement as PN deputy leader (it was still just the one at the time), it was the town’s best known secret that he wanted Simon Busuttil in the job. It was hardly a secret either that the party councillors (only they made the choice at the time) knew what Lawrence Gonzi wanted and had every intention of giving him what he wanted.
But one thing no one could live with was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Simon Busuttil’s inevitable win by the banal fact of no one running against him. Another perfectly eligible candidate who at any other time would have made a perfectly good deputy leader had to be found and asked to run, even if likely to lose, for the good of the party.
Tonio Fenech ran against Simon Busuttil. As he expected as much as anyone, he lost to Simon Busuttil giving Simon Busuttil in the process the legitimacy that can only come from winning an election against a rival in the flesh conducted freely, fairly and openly.
Any elected official in the higher ranks of the PN will want and need more than the glow of the leader’s favour to have a productive tour of duty. If they are going to be more than candlesticks they need the legitimacy of a proper voting process. If the leader is to rely on the utility of their support, even if they are personally strong sympathisers of his to begin with, he needs them to have the legitimacy of a voting support and not to stand on the clay feet of an arranged marriage.