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NEWS | Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Labour’s euro-strategy – orchestra or cacophony?

It’s early days for the 2009 European elections, but Labour is banging its drum already. By JAMES DEBONO

Just 14 months after winning the 2008 election by a razor-thin majority, the GonziPN ticket will be facing the verdict of the electorate in the European Parliament elections.
It is still early days – Gonzi has the comfort of a full four years to recover from a repeat trouncing in the European elections, which last time around elected two Nationalist MEPs and three Labour MEPs, amongst them, the leader of the MLP Joseph Muscat.
But the stakes are much higher for Muscat himself, who will be facing his first electoral test as MLP leader.
Although the Labour media has tried to create ripples by announcing the candidatures of former Nationalist ministers Francis Zammit Dimech and Michael Frendo, both have denied these rumours. In the meantime, many MLP candidates have started to announce their candidature.
Labour now has the task of defending its 2004 victory. Failing to reconfirm its three seats or any result below the 48.4% gained in 2004 would be a major blow.
On the other hand, the PN has the strange advantage of starting the race from 2004’s abysmal result when it didn’t even scrape past the 40% mark.
Judging by the candidates who have already confirmed their intention to contest, Labour’s strategy this time around will be that of fielding a very wide spectrum of candidates, ranging from eurosceptic Sharon Ellul Bonici to the George Abela who openly backed Malta’s EU accession bid. Labour wants to widen its appeal.
And so far the prospective candidates fall under three broad categories: ‘Mintoffians’ who fell out with Alfred Sant, like Marija Camilleri; media darlings like Claudette Baldacchino and Charlon Gouder for the core voter; and the moderates for the middle-of-the-road voters, like Marlene Mizzi and George Abela.
The mix is certainly diverse: Ellul Bonici may be known for her militancy in eurosceptic groups but her extremely liberal views on social issues could also appeal to progressive voters.
And if their candidature is confirmed, Mizzi and Abela could be pivotal in the party’s strategy to build a new majority in the country. Recovering the votes lost in 1998 could be the cherry on the cake.
The problem for Labour is that even by trying to appease three different audiences, it risks a cacophony that disorients the discerning MOR voter. Since becoming leader Muscat has walked on a tightrope by welcoming old Labour figures while trying to steer the party towards more European and liberal horizons.
And unlike Labour, whose ten candidates must be approved by the party general conference, the PN can sit comfortably watching the moves of the other parties before its strategy group decides on the ideal mix of Nationalist candidates.
So while Labour’s candidates slog it out in a fratricidal pre-electoral campaign to get the votes of delegates, the PN’s top-down approach saves it from this little circus and instead allows it to engineer a mix of candidates who match the electorate’s expectations.
Simon Busuttil has already set his well-oiled machine in motion, after turning the Prime Minister’s own request to take over as PN secretary-general. Former nurses’ union boss Rudolph Cini is the only man to announce his intention to contest for the PN. EU official Edward Demicoli is hoping to bank on his profile at the side of EU representation head Joanna Drake, a former PN candidate in 2004. But it likely that the party will only field its heavyweights late in the day.
And in this case, incumbent MEP David Casa, who faced the embarrassment of being singled out by the gay community for his negative voting record on LGBT issues, could face fierce competition in his bid to retain his seat.
In the meantime, prospective Labour candidates have already set in motion their electoral machines. Claudette Baldacchino has already set up her own Facebook group: Claudette Abela Baldacchino – Your Choice, Your Voice in Europe.
Her chances of getting the green light by the general conference this time around are also greater – in 2004 each candidate needed a 70% endorsement. Now they need a 50% plus one endorsement from delegates. And the new statute also lays down a minimum of two women candidates and one who has resided in Gozo for 10 years. Back in 2004 Labour did not have a single Gozitan or female candidate.
One major incognita will be whether Alternattiva Demokratika can retain the 23,000 votes gained by Arnold Cassola in 2004, after seeing its vote slip to just 1.3% in the general election despite its former leader’s declared aim of electing three MPs.
While AD tends to be far more successful in local and European elections where no government is at stake, Labour moderates like George Abela and Marlene Mizzi can attract dissatisfied ‘pale blue’ voters who might have voted for AD.
Even if Labour triumph in 2009, they will have no reason to rest on their laurels. Gonzi will once again have four long years to recover and garner the strength required for yet another electoral showdown.


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