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‘PN campaign left much to be desired’ – de Marco Nationalist MP Mario De Marco is currently being perceived by many as the man suited to replace former Prime Minister and incumbent Nationalist Leader Lawrence Gonzi when the party holds its leadership election on 4 May. While he has not yet confirmed whether he would be throwing his hat in the ring for the PN top post, he has however been showing clear signs of leaning in that direction - most notably by penning an autopsy of the party which spelled out an aspirant-leader's vision for the party just days after its landslide defeat at the polls. When de Marco was asked about the Nationalist Party's electoral campaign, devised by party strategist Joe Saliba and former minister Austin Gatt, he again did not mince words, but at the same time held back from going on the offensive. "It left much to be desired. Very often, we were far too reactive rather than proactive. For reasons which were perhaps sometimes outside of our control, the political agenda was being set either by the Labour Party, or by developments taking place." He noted that "without a doubt", the Enemalta kickbacks commissions oil scandal and the ensuing investigation occupied much of the campaign's agenda throughout the two months that preceded the election. So did the power station issue, and Labour's energy proposals. "Which means that for almost half the campaign, the PN was reacting instead of setting the tempo and the agenda of the campaign," de Marco said. "But aside from that, we could have also been much more imaginative in the messages we were trying to convey." "However obviously everyone is wiser in hindsight, and I imagine that those managing the campaign had their reasons for doing what they did," de Marco noted, playing down his criticism. He conceded that in this election, Labour was far more organised than in preceding campaigns. "Probably the Labour Party learned from the PN and the way we have managed our past campaigns," de Marco said. However, he returned to his previous point. "People don't always appreciate negative campaigning. We had another negative campaign in 1996. Then also we did not win the election. This does not mean we lost this election because of it, but I certainly didn't help." He pointed to the controversial blue/red faces billboard, which the PN unveiled in the wake of Busuttil's remark to Labour candidate Deborah Schembri that she was being used by Labour because she had a "Nationalist face". "I did not like the 'painted faces' billboard. Neither did I like the 'blokka silg' billboards, which were left in place until just a few days before the election," de Marco said with a frown. "It seems to me that I should want to win an election not because my adversary party is so bad or untrustworthy, but because I feel that my party is the right party and the party capable of leading," he says. He also insisted that political battles today are not won in the campaign weeks in the run up to the election, but that a party's political work starts the moment one election is concluded and another term starts - even if they are in government. "One must convince people not during the five or nine weeks of a political campaign, but in reality from the very next day of winning a campaign and of starting a new legislature. Asked for his take on the factors into the PN's landslide defeat at the polls on 9 March, de Marco pointed to several factors that "snowballed" while insisting "it would be a mistake to try and identify just one reason." He argued that "first and foremost, there was the time factor", pointing to how the PN has been in government for the past 15 years - 26 if one excludes the short-lived Sant 1996-1998 administration. "Without a doubt, as happens in every democratic country, the people seemed to have decided they wanted change. Which is a natural process in every democracy." De Marco added that insofar as the average life span of EU administrations, the PN well exceeded the 10-year average. "One can eat rib-eye stake every day. But after two solid weeks of that, anyone would want a change. It is only natural," de Marco argued by way of analogy. "It doesn't mean that the meat itself was bad quality." De Marco also pointed to what he describes as the "leadership factor", noting that despite how in 2008, the PN pitted the relatively fresh-faced Lawrence Gonzi against long-standing leader Alfred Sant - who had already led the party through four elections, the preceding two of which he had lost - the PN only won by a handful of votes. "We know that there were many Labour supporters who were not comfortable voting for Labour because they didn't agree with Sant's leadership style, as well as certain decisions he made, both regarding the Mintoff issue, and also the PL's position against EU membership. "It was natural that the moment the PL changed its leadership and chose Muscat, those Labour supporters who were previously not comfortable voting for PL flocked back to the party." De Marco also concedes that the dissent manifested by certain individuals - particularly rogue MPs Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando - on the PN's rowdy backbench also undermined the party's unity and stability.  "For those following the PN from the outside, they obviously started seeing a party which was not only experiencing considerable internal conflict, but was becoming weakened by this conflict," de Marco maintained. De Marco also argued that the PN's electoral prospects were hindered considerably because "it lost touch with certain segments of society", adding "the support the PN enjoyed among younger generations was not as strong as it was in past elections". "While before it was a natural choice for younger voters to opt for the PN because the party was reflecting their aspirations - such as when the PN campaign in favour of Malta's EU accession in 2003 - this election the party was not necessarily reflecting their way of thinking. Now, I feel that younger generations are viewing the PN as too conservative." He noted that the party's opposition to the introduction of divorce contributed considerably towards this perception. "Maltese society changed over the past years, and the party did not want to accept this." He also noted that the PN managed to alienate the sympathies of the gay population when it attempted to introduce civil union for same-sex couples by means of a law that sought to regulate cohabitation. "Some felt either insulted, or that the proposed rights were too conservative," de Marco said. He also argued that certain aspects of the PN's electoral campaign did not help the party's electoral prospects. "The way the campaign was conducted was too negative, and far too based on the personal element," de Marco said. "People today look towards politicians and expect a new way of doing and talking politics." "To a certain extent we were also victims of the successes we achieved," de Marco adds, citing this as the reason the electorate was unafraid by the unknown variable that the PL and Joseph Muscat represented. "Because the people felt so comfortable, they felt that they could opt for change without taking the time to adequately consider the consequences that such a change could bring." De Marco also said that another factor that worked against the PN was that "for the first time, the political positions of both parties on principal issues - such as EU membership and economic issues - where not that far from each other". In this, de Marco claims a victory for the PN. "Arguably, the biggest achievement of the PN during its previous term was that it convinced the PL to change its policies to ones closer to those of the PN." At the same time, de Marco seems sceptical whether Labour could ever be a new-and-improved PN. "Whether the PL will be able to truly execute these policies is however something we will need to see over the coming five years." A full interview with Mario de Marco appears in sister newspaper Illum