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NEWS | Sunday, 27 January 2008

Gonzi’s dilemma before D-Day

The Prime Minister is keeping everyone guessing about the election date, but while it makes sense to keep options open, he also risks appearing indecisive. James Debono analyses the Prime Minister’s election alternatives

By Monday February 4, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi will have taken at least one major electoral decision: whether to hold local elections on the same date of general elections on March 8, or to postpone either election to a later date.
The Local Councils Act states clearly that a notice announcing local elections should be issued 35 days before the date of elections, and that elections should normally be held on the second Saturday of March.
But the same law gives the Prime Minister the power to postpone local elections if elections for councillors are due to be held within four months of the holding of general elections, referenda or European elections.
Although the electoral commission is duty bound to issue the writ for local council by February 2, the Prime Minister can issue a legal notice postponing these elections.
Technically according to the Chief Electoral Commissioner Edward Gatt when postponing local elections, the Prime Minister is not obliged to indicate a date for the forthcoming local and general elections.
If the Prime Minister chooses this option he would keep everyone guessing. But this is highly unlikely with the Labour Party openly in campaign mode and the Prime Minister trying to avoid any semblance of indecision on the eve of an election.
This means that if general elections are held before July the Prime Minister can postpone local elections to whatever date he likes. The latest date general election can be held is 22 August but any election after June is extremely unlikely.
Surely, one option which seems to be completely excluded is to hold the two elections on different dates. It is easy to see why: recent local council experiences have been disastrous for the PN, and an electoral thrashing for the party in government a few months before general elections could even be fatal. Besides, the chances of a recovery at local level this time around look very slender, especially when one considers that the next round of local elections includes Labour fortresses like Zejtun and Marsa: where, in 2005, the PN had played Joe Saliba’s secret card by withdrawing its candidates at the last minute, cancelling the elections and depriving residents of their vote.
Excluding the unlikely option of going for local elections on 8 March without going for a general election on the same day, Prime Minister is left with three other options.
1) Call an general election and a local election on March 8.
2) Issue a notice for the postponement of local election without issuing a date.
3) Issue a notice for the postponement of local elections and a date for both local and general elections some time between March and July.
The Prime Minister’s indecision on whether to proceed with an election on March 8 is perfectly understandable, considering the Opposition Leader’s health troubles. Announcing an election while Sant is still recovering would seem unethical and not on for a Prime Minister who has promised a new way of doing politics. Yet Alfred Sant’s address in today’s MLP general conference is set to signal a full comeback to the electoral fray. This makes March 8 an acceptable date for both major parties.
March 8 also happens to be the anniversary of the referendum on EU membership, a date which could rekindle memories of the “yes” victory and Alfred Sant’s partnership debacle.
March also offers several advantages to Lawrence Gonzi. The price stability agreements, which ensured a smooth transition to the Euro, would still be in place. A rise in inflation after the expiry of these agreements would be a bad omen for the PN which prides on the Euro changeover as one of its major accomplishments.
Yet the major disadvantage of going to the polls in March would be lack of time to persuade voters. With the PN still trailing in polls after a generous budget – as evidenced by MaltaToday’s December poll which showed the MLP with a small advantage – Lawrence Gonzi could bank on a longer campaign to persuade the large number of undecided voters.
An election after March 8 will also coincide with the opening of the spring hunting season. Yet this decision will not have much of a bearing on the choice of election date, as the Ornis Committee would have to take a decision before March 8. Any decision taken is certain to alienate one group of voters: either the hunters themselves, who have found a political voice in Azzjoni Nazzjonali; or environmentalists, who might be further tempted to vote for the Greens.
Postponing the election until April or May would bring with it the advantage of middle class voters reaping the fruits of the last budget, by feeling the benefit of the tax cuts in three or four successive pay cheques, as well as allowing time for other government initiatives to leave an impact.
The government would also have the advantage of holding onto the tools of government during a long electoral campaign. This gives the government a chance to redress individual grievances, but it could also backfire due to the increasing risk of leaks and accusations of favouritism on the eve of an election.
The PN could also count on a long electoral campaign which could exhaust the energies of the Malta Labour Party and its leader, who would be recovering from treatment after a major operation. Yet Alfred Sant could be now less prone to giving the PN machine a free gift, after learning his lesson from the Birzebbuga debacle. Picturing Alfred Sant as evil incarnate would also be unsavoury for the electorate after his recovery from a colon tumour.
Yet If Gonzi decides not to go for an election on March 8, he will have to decide an alternative date and whether to spell out the exact date of when the election will be held in the next days.
It is highly unlikely that an election will be held on the two weeks after March 8, when Our Lady of Sorrows and Easter are celebrated.
Surely by going for a long campaign, he would be defying a tradition of short intense campaigns introduced by Eddie Fenech Adami but it was perfectly normal for Labour and Nationalist governments to hold unto power till the last moment.
Still, he would have the honour of letting people assess him on his full term. Surely if he goes for an election in May he would silence criticism that he held the election opportunistically before the expiry of the price stability agreements which helped ensure a smooth transition to the Euro.
But if, by next Sunday, the general public remains none the wiser regarding his intentions, Gonzi would risk confirming a perception that he is still undecided on the election date and unable to take a major decision.

jdebono@mediatoday.com.mt

 



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