Malta waits with bated breath

The election of the PN party leader has come and gone. Nearly six weeks after the parliamentary crisis brought to a head by the abstention in Parliament of MP Franco Debono in the confidence vote of last January 18, it is now clear that Lawrence Gonzi has the unconditional approval and backing of basically all party councillors. His leadership of the PN is undisputed.

One cannot however ignore the fact that four high profile PN politicians made it a point to register their dissatisfaction with Dr Gonzi in public. By not collecting their voting document, former PN president Frank Portelli, MPs Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett and European Commissioner John Dalli have warned Dr Gonzi that he has not seen the last of them. While the threat does not seem to be a serious one when coming from the first three, who seem to be on the way out in politics, I would not take lightly the John Dalli threat. My feeling is that he will be back with a vengeance if things were to go wrong for the PN in the upcoming national elections.

The speech given by Dr Gonzi the following Sunday morning was quite different from his usual Sunday talks. Of course, the rubbishing of Joseph Muscat’s proposals was still there, but this was left for the very last part of the more or less 90-minute speech. Instead, the major novelty was the way the Prime Minister ate humble pie and basically denounced his and his ministers’ behaviour over the past four years.

Hearing the Prime Minister demolish the artificially created mythology known as GonziPN was quite an impressive thing. Basically, Dr Gonzi stated that GonziPN never existed. According to him, all the good things that the country has experienced in the past four years are not a result of GonziPN but are the merit of the party. The message the Prime Minister was continuously harping on was that the party came before the individual and that no individual, not even GonziPN, was greater than the party.

The greater part of his speech was then devoted to a big mea culpa. Dr Gonzi seems to have realised all of a sudden that the past four years had been characterised by a total detachment of the Prime Minister and his ministers from reality. “We need to forget the bigger picture,” seems to have been his prevailing message, “and we need to devote ourselves to the bread and butter issues of the ordinary people”. Whether Dr Gonzi is sincere in this resolve of being near to the people’s daily worries is still to be seen. The results of the local council elections seem to indicate clearly that the people are not at all impressed by Dr Gonzi’s promises.

What has not convinced me completely is the way he is going to go about it. With immediate effect “he was appointing Simon Busuttil as his special delegate (standing ovation) to immediately, through AŻAD, organise meetings between him and every sector of the country – from youth workers to workers in the various sectors, industry, contractors and even individuals – so that he could hear about the challenges, problems and opportunities which existed and how the future of the country could be mapped out. The people would also be invited to apply to meet him to discuss the future of various sectors”.

Will this be a sincere consultation process, coming four years too late, aimed at bettering the quality of life of the normal citizen or is this a hastily concocted “customer care” exercise aimed at promising everything to everyone – in typical Dr Muscat style – in order to be able to snatch the government from PL in extremis at the next general election, as happened in 2008? Well, I believe that only time will tell on this.

The second measure to be taken is that the PN secretary would draw up a plan of meetings by ministers with society. “We want to come to you, we want to hear you in the squares, in your homes, we want to share your wishes, your pains, your wishes…”. More “customer care”, therefore… which is an indication of the fast approaching national election. Incidentally, the tone and pitch of these announcements clearly point to the fact that Dr Busuttil is the anointed and preferred future PN leader of the Prime Minister, while his not mentioning the secretary general by name goes to confirm that Paul Borg Olivier does not top the Prime Minister’s “hit parade” of politicians.

Now, the country is in the hands of Dr Debono. His first reaction to Dr Gonzi’s speech was that Dr Gonzi’s “conversion” was all due to him. “…It is very clear that the party and the government needed a reality check, and if the PN and government are coming back to their senses, it is thanks to me”.

One would believe that, following the Prime Minister’s conversion, the Għaxaq MP’s quest for democratic practices, justice and rectitude would now be fully satisfied. Yet, this is not so. Happy with the speech, Dr Debono now wants to see if these words are going to be translated into real action.

In fact, after the praises, Dr Debono issued a stern warning: “Today’s declarations (by Prime Minister Gonzi) would be meaningless if the issues of political responsibility, the oligarchy and constitutional reforms dealing with the distribution of power among institutions are not urgently tackled”.

His scathing attack on Richard Cachia Caruana in Parliament and outside it goes to show that the Għaxaq MP is not at all appeased.

Basically, therefore, we are back to square one. Dr Debono is warning that if Dr Gonzi does not dismantle the “clique” and the “oligarchy” and does not punish his “failed” (according to Dr Debono) ministers (Carm Mifsud Bonnici? Austin Gatt? Joe Cassar?) and advisors (Mr Cachia Caruana, Edgar Galea Curmi), the Għaxaq backbencher will feel free to vote as he pleases in Parliament. Will the Prime Minister comply and obey Dr Debono’s indications? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the country waits with bated breath for the next episode in this parliamentary saga.

Prof. Cassola is Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party spokesperson on EU and International Affairs.