It was a calm and uneventful start to what could easily be described as one of the longest and heated meetings of the Labour Party’s national executive yesterday evening.
There were no delegates petitioning members of the executive to accept George Abela’s request to widen the voting base for selecting the leader to paid up members. There were only sombre faces walking up the few stairs towards the glass door.
Alfred Sant wasn’t there either. Contacted later by this newspaper at his Birkirkara home the Labour leader refrained from commenting. “I have nothing to add,” he said when asked the reason for his absence from yesterday’s meeting.
Little did Sant’s absence bother the few unelected candidates and their canvassers, who decided to stand silently outside the headquarters awaiting their fate as the executive had to vote which seats were to be ceded by members of parliament who were elected from two districts.
Journalists and camerapersons just stood there watching the procession of members of the executive, including MPs alighting from their cars and hurriedly making their way towards the main entrance. Few words were said, apart from the occasional handshake with the few canvassers that gathered outside.
Only newly-elected Marlene Pullicino spoke to the press. “Thank you for your patience throughout the electoral campaign,” she told waiting journalists before disappearing behind the glass door that was kept locked at all times.
Leadership hopefuls Joseph Muscat, Michael Falzon, Marie-Louise Coleiro, Anglu Farrugia, Evarist Bartolo and Charles Mangion were all present.
Two police officers assigned to monitor proceedings outside stood a couple of feet away from the main entrance, in what was to be an anti-climax after Nationalist Party daily In-Nazzjon yesterday announced that delegates and sympathisers of former deputy leader George Abela were to gather outside the headquarters to make Abela’s case.
Apart from the decision by secret vote to determine which seats MPs were going to give up, the executive yesterday had to debate the date for the general conference to elect the new leader, as well as a motion proposing the abolition of the post for deputy leader for party affairs.
The meeting, scheduled to start at 6.30pm, dragged on for hours and by the time of going to print no official statement was delivered.
The unofficial contestants
Meanwhile, the sounding out of delegates continued in earnest throughout the past few days by the leadership hopefuls. Even if nobody has given a definite “yes” to the question whether he or she will be contesting the post vacated by Alfred Sant, the frontrunners are Joseph Muscat and Michael Falzon.
George Abela’s foray into the contest is deemed by many insiders as a non-starter given the lawyer’s prolonged absence from the MLP. Even if Abela has been given good coverage by Xarabank and Bondiplus, his standing among delegates is weak and his comment on Lou Bondì’s show that for him the GWU came before the MLP has not gone down all too well with delegates.
On the other hand, Muscat enjoys widespread support among delegates and members of parliament. Party heavyweights George Vella and Karmenu Vella are behind Muscat’s bid, and the young MEP also commands the support of party whip Joe Mizzi.
At 34, just one year older than Dom Mintoff’s age when he split the party in 1949, Muscat is seen as the ideal candidate to bridge the divide with a reluctant middle class that has consistently thrown its weight behind the PN.
Muscat’s European credentials, his lack of business connections and his youth are all deemed to be positive factors in his regard.
For his part, Michael Falzon, a loyal party man, commands the respect of Labour’s rank and file for his sterling work within the party’s electoral machinary.
But Falzon’s decision not to step down as deputy leader after the defeat, his public outbursts last year and his mass meeting antics have all dented the deputy leader’s standing among delegates.
In the cacophony fuelling the undercurrents, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and Evarist Bartolo are increasingly being seen as possible king-makers. The two may either decide to throw their names into the hat – not a far fetched possibility – but they may also be instrumental to bolster other candidates’ chances if they throw their weight behind someone else.
Coleiro Preca, who polled the highest number of votes after Alfred Sant, commands great respect from the grassroots. She speaks their language and has climbed up the party ladder. She may not be the ideal candidate to reach out to the middle classes but her positioning within the party could be crucial to sway the Labour’s hard core delegates either way.
Evarist Bartolo may not be as popular with delegates as he is with the electorate. He has a political baggage to carry, even if it has nothing to do with scandals and corruption, but nonetheless he brings with him wit and vision. Bartolo can be seen as an ideal bridge to the middle class but if he makes way for someone else he way add valuable punch to the candidate he decides to support.
As for the possible candidacies of Charles Mangion and Anglu Farrugia, both their bids lack widespread support. Mangion failed to resign from his post as deputy leader even if he has publicly accepted part of the responsibility for the defeat. Farrugia, on the other hand, failed in 2003 to take the leadership post from Sant and it is highly unlikely that delegates will cling on to a loser despite Farrugia’s squeaky clean record.