It is not just a feeling. Polling consistently shows that one of two realities that have been nearly immutable since 2008 has now changed. The reality that remains in place is that if an election were held tomorrow Labour would win with a handsome majority. There were times when its advantage over the PN was greater but the advantage it enjoys now is still greater than any advantage the PN ever had on Labour in Malta’s political history.
What has changed is that Labour has lost the support of the nation’s majority. The guarantee of perpetual popularity has expired. The majority of the people of Malta want something else. They would choose something else if something else was available. Instead all that is available right now is the PN and around half of the people who declare they do not want the Labour Party in government anymore cannot bring themselves to express the view they would rather the PN in government instead.
One may, and one should, acknowledge that politics should not be a zero sum game between two possible options. One may and should acknowledge that there is no historical guarantee of the continued existence of either one of the two parties. But until someone steps up and provides an alternative that people consider a viable option the argument about third or fourth alternatives remains moot.
While we debate the possible, we cannot lose sight of the probable. Much as some of us would have good reason to wish to see an enriched and more nuanced political discourse with a plurality of parties on the scene, the big empty disenfranchised hole in our electorate risks being filled by something altogether darker than colourful shades of democratic moderation. While a crisis in support for mainstream parties is something we must acknowledge, wishing that crisis leads to moderate coalition politics that traipse around the centre is not going to bring about the outcome we might so desire.
The likelier alternative is populism, a more explicitly racist, greedier, easier version than today’s Labour Party, a latter day Muscatonomical mass seduction.
This is why, independently of what we might wish, the country needs a political alternative that is able to defeat the Labour Party electorally and then take over the government of the country staying within the realms of the rule of law, guaranteeing social justice, promoting economic viability, readying us for the climate emergency, reversing the environmental degradation of the country, respecting and safeguarding human rights, and just being reasonably good.
No government has ever been perfect and certainly no PN government has been above criticism. But all PN governments have operated within the bounds of reasonableness and moderation, giving the country extended periods of normality if not social revolution.
That is no recommendation for the present PN. It’s just not the same party, not the same people, not the same attitudes, and not the same program. I’m not comparing unfavourably today’s PN with any previous iteration. I’m just saying it’s impossible to compare because one great difficulty that the PN presents to the electorate today is that nobody can figure out what the PN is, who it is, and why it could be a better alternative to the Saturnian monster that the present government is.
There are questions Joseph Muscat answered on the eve of the 2013 elections that the PN cannot answer now. True enough those answers often amounted to lies and silence is better than lies but silence is not quite as reassuring.
Pretty much the only thing the PN is clear about in its policy manual is that it is against abortion in any and all circumstances which for people who support that policy is a comfort and for people who do not is at least crisp and clear.
But there are other questions people ask of a possible alternative to government.
Such as, if the PN were to be in government tomorrow, who’d be Finance Minister? What’s the PN’s stand on corporate tax levels? Will the PN adopt policies that will slow or reverse building development? Does the PN have a plan to address inflation, prohibitive property prices, higher barriers to banking, homelessness, and discrimination in social accommodation?
Does the PN have a different policy for the integration of migrants? Are there specific ideas for reforms in public schools?
What’s the PN’s vision for future and more sustainable economic activities? What will the new job requirements be and how will we meet them?
What’s the PN’s policy about national security in the changing world? How are we changing our relationship with the rest of the EU, the US, Russia, the Middle East, and China?
What’s going to happen to catch up on the time lost to Malta’s health sector? Is income for nurses and midwifes going to be boosted and if yes, how?
Is there a plan to change our transport infrastructure and if yes how is it going to be financed?
I could go on. I’m not asking the questions because I presume to have answers but because the PN is not entitled to expect to start enjoying the people’s confidence if it is unable to provide convincing elevator pitches for each one of these points whenever it is asked. Scratch that. The PN becomes entitled to hope it can be elected to power when people know the answers to these questions before they have to ask them.
The best the PN can offer right now is a hardly believable promise that its leadership, such as it is, will not be consuming itself in some very public fratricidal spectacle. That’s just not good enough.
If there’s any lesson the present moment teaches us is that politics is indeed no longer a zero sum game. People do not fall into the laps of the opposing party as an automatic consequence of abandoning the other. The losses the Labour Party is suffering are by no means automatic gains for the PN.
The real issue here is that the PN needs to turn the corner not because the party exists to win elections. We’re well past that consideration. The PN needs to ready itself for government because the country absolutely needs it to. Two years ago the country needed an alternative to Labour and perhaps wasn’t aware of that need. Now that’s changed. Now the country is turning to the PN and realising just how wanting the prospect is.
The PN needs to earn the public’s confidence and with a decimated generation of potential leaders, and a current crop of MPs who almost universally have no experience whatsoever in policy making, let alone government, it feels like an impossible task. Doesn’t matter. Impossible it may be. Done it must be.