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NEWS | Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Jason Micallef, the albatross around Joseph’s neck

If there is anyone to blame for last Monday’s collective hara-kiri at the Mile Land, it’s Labour leader Joseph Muscat who was either too weak to show Micallef the way out or too obliging towards Labour’s architect of defeat, JAMES DEBONO says

By re-electing Jason Micallef two months after choosing Joseph Muscat as their new leader, the MLP’s delegates have simply given substance to Nationalist spin.
Ever since Muscat sounded his intention to become leader, Nationalist pundits linked Jason Micallef’s political survival in the party to Joseph Muscat’s leadership bid. The fact that Micallef survived Muscat’s “earthquake” and his promise of a new political season, brings the Labour leader’s honeymoon to an abrupt end.
For the re-election of Micallef shows one of two things about Muscat: either that he is too weak or that he is still in debt towards Micallef.
For despite reported talks with Micallef not to seek re-election, if Muscat really wanted to get rid of Micallef he was unable to impose his will on his own party.
Most probably Muscat simply chose the easy way out – that of washing his hands and hoping that the delegates would use their minds while fully knowing that the incumbent Micallef had a natural advantage over the other contestants.
For irrespective of Muscat’s good intentions, the proof of the party’s transformation lies in the rotten pudding concocted by the party delegates on Monday.

The power of incumbency
Surely last Monday’s conference was a triumph for the same party establishment which led the MLP to an improbable defeat last March.
Not only has Jason Micallef been confirmed as secretary-general with the support of 370 delegates, but Joe Vella Bonnici – the candidate who best represented Muscat’s new way of doing politics – only managed to garner the third place behind Micallef and Michael Falzon acolyte Alfred Grixti.
Grixti himself had been approached not to stand for election, despite indications of a Micallef win, but the runner-up would have none of that, in the meantime damaging the chances for Vella Bonnici, a favourite amongst the Muscat camp.
The trouncing of former education secretary Wenzu Mintoff – one of the few progressive intellectuals in the MLP – by incumbent party president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi was another victory for the party establishment.
On a political level the defeat of Msida mayor Alex Sciberras in his bid for the party deputy presidency, was even more significant because unlike Mintoff, Sciberras is considered to be very close to the new Labour leader.
Remarkably, the only successful challenge to rock the party establishment came from Alex Sceberras Trigona, who descended on the party like a sputnik from the Cold War era. The eurosceptic Sceberras Trigona who managed to beat incumbent Joe Mifsud, will now be representing the MLP in the European socialist family.

Faction-ridden party
Jason Micallef owes his triumph to the factional divisions in the MLP which persist despite Muscat’s election as leader, with the Falzon camp firmly backing the Grixti candidature.
Paradoxically Micallef was elected despite lacking a majority who voted for the other candidates. While 370 voted for Micallef, 467 voted for the three other candidates.
If the contest was a referendum on whether Micallef should hold on to his post, the message from the delegates to Micallef was clear. His only way is out.
But this was not the case because the party’s general secretary is elected through the first-past-the-post mechanism. Everybody knew Micallef started as a favourite in a three-horse race.
And apart from Michael Falzon whose enmity towards Micallef dates back to before the March election, nobody except Labour MPs Leo Brincat and Evarist Bartolo lifted a finger to stop the inevitable and save their party from a colossal embarrassment. Party grandees like George Vella, who did not refrain from supporting Muscat’s leadership bid, remained remarkably silent.
Surprisingly it was the soft-spoken Leo Brincat – considered close to Joseph Muscat – who had the courage to call a spade a spade and describe Micallef’s position as untenable in the wake of the electoral defeat analysis report.
Brincat also revealed that when he made his opinion known to Micallef, he was impolitely told he should not even bother to congratulate him upon his election. “This is the kind of arrogance that I hope delegates will push aside,” Brincat wrote. His advice went unheeded.
Despite the honourable gesture of Joe Chetcuti and Gino Cauchi to bow out of the race to simplify the delegates’ choice, Jason Micallef still benefited from a three-way race.
And while the contest proves that the Falzon faction remains firmly united behind Alfred Grixti, the Muscat camp remains a heterogeneous coalition of loyalists who backed Micallef and modernisers who backed the little known Vella Bonnici – a logical conclusion of Muscat’s conscious decision to wash his hands of the impending contest.
Surely in normal circumstances a leader is not expected to take sides. But after three consecutive electoral defeats and a report exposing a faction ridden administration presided by Micallef, Muscat was expected to give a signal.
Now the party may have to pay a price for Muscat’s silence. The MLP delegates have elected a secretary-general who is in open conflict with leadership contenders George Abela and Michael Falzon, who repeatedly made it clear they are not willing to work alongside Micallef.
This is a major setback for Muscat in his bid to bring Abela and Falzon back on board. Jason Micallef, who does not even command the respect of prominent members of Muscat’s shadow cabinet like Leo Brincat and Evarist Bartolo, remains a divisive figure.
And how can the MLP conduct a serious debate on its own defeat report with Jason Micallef still at the helm of the party’s administration?
Ultimately Micallef’s election harms Muscat’s bid to become Prime Minister in five years’ time, for Micallef will stand as a constant reminder to middle-of-the-road voters that the MLP is immune from change.
And Joseph Muscat has only himself to blame for feeding the same albatross which now hangs around his neck.

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