David Friggieri | Sunday, 14 June 2009
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Has the PN reached its elastic limit?

A few years ago, several moons before the word ‘progressive’ entered Brand New Labour’s political jargon, I had asked the few souls who graced Malta’s embryonic blogging scene whether divorce would prove to be the Nationalist Party’s elastic limit. In the aftermath of the European Parliament elections, that question has become more relevant than ever.
For years now, we have fluffed around the divorce issue by ‘focusing on more important matters’ or by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist. But the bottom line is that the way the divorce debate has progressed in this country speaks volumes about the type of state we are living in and about the ruling party’s central ethos.
This week, probably sensing that the Labour Party’s rebranding exercise has already started to take its toll on his party, PN vote-catcher Simon Busuttil, dissecting the election result in The Times on 10th June, attempted to downplay Joseph Muscat’s progressive and moderate labels by implying that they’re just political catchphrases. “I still see little meaning behind Labour’s ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ fancy labels”, Busuttil wrote. Other Nationalist Party sympathisers have adopted a more aggressive approach by pouring scorn over Muscat’s progressive credentials. And here is formerly ultra-conservative The Times doing its best to pee on Muscat’s parade in its 12 June editorial: “Labour leader Joseph Muscat may soon find that he might have gone a bit over the top in his political rhetoric over what he called the birth of a new progressive movement.”
In the grand European scheme of things they have a point but as with most things in life, it’s all relative. In the local context and in policy terms, all it took for Muscat to market himself as the New Progressive Messiah was to state categorically that he was personally in favour of divorce and that, on election, he’d allow his MPs a free vote on the issue. Bingo!
That was a year ago. Lawrence Gonzi ignored the invitation to play ball, the ‘divorce debate’ was conveniently aborted and the comfortable status quo was maintained. But where does the latest European election drubbing leave the PN? Can it really afford to blame the defeat on the vague notion that ‘people were hurt’ by the government’s attitude over the past months, as it seems inclined to do? For starters, that claim is terribly generic. Worse, it is likely to lead to a spiral of patronage and blackmail in a country which desperately needs to cull rather than cultivate that type of thinking.
The problem with the divorce hot potato is that it goes well beyond the mere question of its introduction or otherwise in the only country on Earth, barring the Philippines, which hasn’t done so yet. For the Nationalist party, proposing divorce would represent an ideological shift which may require an overhaul of its central players and a break with its natural choice of dauphins.
Perhaps picking up on the mood in the aftermath of the election result, PN sympathisers were quick to suggest that breaking the divorce taboo would work wonders for the ruling party’s electoral chances come next election. As a strategy that might indeed bear fruit by neutralising a major plank of Muscat’s progressive platform. But it would remain just that – a mere political gambit, a sop to the electorate devoid of conviction and open to manipulation (And God help us if divorce gets bogged down by some smoke-screen statistical study!). My point is that divorce shouldn’t be the victim of yet another half-baked electoral strategy. Rather, it should be the result of a perceptible shift in the way political parties perceive the state.
It’s a tough call for the Nationalist Party which might well have found itself at the type of crossroads its present leaders would have desperately liked to avoid. In spite of all the indications to the contrary and its serious flirting with people who appear to be hell-bent on playing inquisitorial-cum-fascist politics, my hunch is that the PN, a party with a formidable capacity for regeneration, is still in time to outshine Muscat’s shambolic outfit. But it might require a small liberal revolution and a humble outstretching of its tired arms to do that convincingly

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