Chris Said had three options to choose from.
The traditional thing to do would have been to withdraw his candidature and openly back Adrian Delia in the final round going for party unity and ensuring for himself an influential future in the PN led by his erstwhile rival. That normally happens when the choice of leaders is a matter of charisma and leadership qualities. It happens when none of the mainstream contenders or their followers expect the election of someone else to bring about such a radical transformation of the party that they may no longer be comfortable living within it.
Clearly this is not a normal election and judging at least by the rhetoric of the candidates’ supporters, if not of the candidates’ themselves, a mood of a coup has been created where people seem to feel either the election goes their way or they face the political gallows.
The remaining two alternatives available to Chris Said where to withdraw and not back Adrian Delia in the confirmation ballot or the option he ultimately took of staying in the race.
Although Chris Said has not externalised his thinking about his decision, not yet anyway, I think one can reasonably make an analysis of the considerations that must have been in play.
Had Chris Said withdrawn from the race, Adrian Delia would not have automatically been crowned. He would still have had to face a ballot on the 16th: effectively a plebiscite on whether to confirm his election that would have required a two-thirds ratio for his approval. Since the option we are assessing is one where Chris Said would not have backed him, one would have to imagine Chris Said and all the other Adrian Delia sceptics actually campaign for a no vote. The detractors would only need to persuade a third of the party supporters to defeat Adrian Delia.
True those people would be voting for a negation: never an easy campaigning prospect when you’re offering nothing against something, or someone. But people who dislike both Chris Said and Adrian Delia would find it easier to vote no to Delia when that does not in itself mean an expression of a preference to Said.
Why would Chris Said want to block Adrian Delia? We have no evidence of any deep-seated antipathy between the two. But we do have a lot to suggest that a considerable chunk of the PN’s support, as well as entire generations of former leaders, fear that the election of Adrian Delia would bring about a transformation of their party beyond their recognition.
It started with the fact that Adrian Delia fell on the party like rain from an unclouded sky. On top of that came the reporting of Daphne Caruana Galizia corroborated by her harshest critics at Malta Today. Then came Adrian Delia’s mismanagement of those allegations. But all these are doubts on the quality of the leader: enough to doubt the future electoral prospects of the party but not enough to create an existential crisis.
And yet there is now an existential crisis. What started out as a concern about the suitability of the leading contender has become a fear of ideological ruin. There have always been people who threatened not to vote PN or switch to Labour for one petty reason or another. But a line has been crossed this time when considerable numbers have declared themselves politically orphaned purely on ideological grounds.
It is conventional to say that the old Nationalists were arrogant for turning their backs on people who switched their vote because their demands for dodgy building permits and sinecures could not be met. We must chase every vote and grovel and whimper at the feet of those who could not see the big picture. The record shows the party was over-time losing its touch. Maybe there was no longer a big picture. Maybe there was no longer the skill to explain it.
But the situation we have now is not of people threatening not to vote if they don’t get what they want. We have people threatening not to vote if their party changes to the point they no longer recognise themselves within it.
In Adrian Delia they see characteristics they are used to disliking about Labour. Some of these impressions Adrian Delia brought upon himself. Others have been attributed to him by intuition that may with time prove unfair or might just as well prove correct.
His deftness with the spoken word is perceived as demagoguery. His forceful rhetoric is perceived as pandering to baser instincts in his audience. His uneven responses to criticism is perceived as a contempt for the press. His failure to produce in reasonable time an ‘audit’ that no one asked him for in the first place is perceived as a cavalier attitude to truth. His willingness to exploit Labour-concocted myths to further his position is perceived as egotistical to the point of megalomania.
And yet, it is clear, he enjoys massive support. Anyone who has worked in the PN for the last 30 years privately or publicly confesses to his magnetic ability to attract and fire up crowds to an extent not seen since church schools were shut and a young man was shot and killed for having a drink at the wrong village bar. That is impressive. But to the portion of the party support that is worried about populist tendencies it is also exquisitely repulsive.
You would think someone like Chris Said would want to avoid this disaster at all costs. In choosing to stay in the race on the 16th he confirms he does want to avoid this disaster but no, not at all costs.
I think Chris Said has been through enough elections to know that his chances of gaining more than half the votes at the next ballot are not exactly encouraging. Let’s be coy about this and just say that his election would be a surprise. He could have chosen the tactical retreat which may have been enough to scupper Adrian Delia due to the higher threshold of a lone race. Or he could have, do remember, ensured his political safety by backing Adrian Delia at the last ballot.
Instead he must have calculated that distasteful as the outcome may prove to him and his allies, the members of the party have a right to be given a fair choice between two alternative futures of the PN. Never has a party leadership election presented a starker choice.
In a democratic process nothing is more sacred than the vote. But people often run away with this idea to places no democrat should go. Voting processes are mechanisms not principles. The principle is that the people chosen by the majority should run a party (or a country) on behalf and in the interests of everyone. The mechanisms attempt to get as close as possible to an understanding of majority will but they are necessarily imperfect. Some voting mechanisms are more imperfect than others, especially when tried and tested systems are tinkered with and vitiated.
The designers of the present electoral process, being tested now for the first time ever, made a bit of a dog’s breakfast which is misdirecting everyone, particularly the suffrage voting on the 16th. The ballot last Saturday among the councillors did not show that the will of the councillors is for Adrian Delia to be leader. Reaching that conclusion is to allow oneself to be carried away by the wave of support the leading candidate is enjoying.
What happened on Saturday was the first part of the old electoral system to choose a leader. It is called the exhaustive ballot system where a ballot is taken every time the last candidate is eliminated or a candidate concedes until you’re left with one. The first ballot may indicate the voters’ initial mood but is no guaranteed outcome.
As the conventional wisdom on papal conclaves go, the cardinal with the most votes on the first ballot is the least likely to be crowned in the last one.
If the exhaustive ballot system had proceeded as it has always had in all prior leadership elections it is almost certain that Adrian Delia would not have won that hypothetical race. Alex Perici Calascione would have almost certainly backed Chris Said for the second ballot (and Frank Portelli would have backed Adrian Delia). Most of those original votes would have gone in the direction that their candidate recommended and even accounting for second ballot abstention and a few rebels here and there, the outcome would have almost certainly favoured Chris Said.
Even with three candidates participating, the first ballot among the councillors was an Adrian Delia yes-no plebiscite. And the majority vote in that plebiscite was clearly ‘no’.
Frank Portelli never meant to win this election. He may be fascist but he’s not stupid. He did it like he did just about everything in his political career: to strengthen his bargaining position when negotiating his personal issues, of which he has plenty. When he smelt his advantage he publicly backed Adrian Delia recommending effectively that any supporters he did have back Delia even at the first ballot.
Frank Portelli understood the changed dynamics of stunting the exhaustive ballot to a single vote better than any of the other three candidates. If Alex Perici Calascione and Chris Said had understood this as well as Frank Portelli, Perici Calascione would have done for Chris Said ahead of the vote what Frank Portelli did to Adrian Delia.
Stunted the process may be, and misleading the result. But the rules are the rules and this is the reality we live in today.
Chris Said has chosen to live within that reality and fight the next two weeks on the terms that have been determined for him rather than by him.