Lawrence Gonzi’s proposal to Joseph Muscat to appoint George Abela as the next President has all the ingenuity of a political masterstroke that gives the prime minister an aura of magnanimity – an aura which he must surely be coveting in his bid to leave his mark in political history.
As the survey on our sister paper Illum confirms today, the feeling out in the streets is that Abela enjoys widespread popularity and commands respect from Labourites and Nationalists alike. Surprisingly, he commands the respect of 93% of Labourites and of 78% of Nationalists. The statistic is further proof of Gonzi’s cunning in stretching out the hand of reconciliation to the Opposition without alienating his own supporters.
On a much deeper level, however, far underneath the reigning popular consensus, there are undercurrents of dissent that are not immediately visible to the eye, but which are also indicative of the ramifications of Gonzi’s decision.
Indeed, the proposal to install Abela to the presidency has found its share of dissenters precisely within the inner sanctum of the two parties, with the names of Alfred Sant and George Vella from the Labour camp, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Simon Busuttil from the PN.
That Sant and Vella would oppose Abela’s nomination could be expected. Sant has his own emotional and irrational reasons to disagree. Abela is, after all, the former lieutenant who abandoned Sant just as Labour was preparing for war. To this effect, Abela after 1998 is more of a Nationalist construct than a former Labour official.
Beyond Sant, Gonzi’s choice of Abela and Joseph Muscat’s ensuing endorsement also embarrasses the PL’s secretary general, Jason Micallef, who had tried to sideline him in the run-up to the leadership race last year.
Similarly to Sant, Pullicino Orlando wants to make himself seen and heard as a reminder that he wants to be taken seriously. By stating clearly that he disagreed with Gonzi, Pullicino Orlando has effectively fired a warning shot towards his party leader reminding him of the potential hazards from the backbench.
But in proposing Abela, Gonzi has effectively lived up to his own mantra of GonziPN, set in motion in the last electoral campaign, and confirmed in this latest political masterpiece. In choosing Abela, Gonzi has shown he can be his own man, cut the strings from the powers that built him in the first place, and signal to all and sundry that he owes nothing to anyone anymore. It is almost the diametrically opposite situation to that of five years ago, when he chose Eddie Fenech Adami for the presidency in his first decision as prime minister – and arguably the most divisive one at that. This time round, Gonzi has clearly irked some of the PN establishment’s elite, a minority that is bound to remain silent despite the outrage, most prominently Louis Galea, Richard Cachia Caruana, Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and Fenech Adami himself.
In this respect, Gonzi calls to mind the political insight of Niccoló Machiavelli, who, writing in the early 16th century, said that the Prince ought always to “endeavour in every action to gain for himself the reputation of being a great and remarkable man”. More specifically, it was this Tuscan thinker’s shrewd observation that “it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.”
Substitute the “prince” for GonziPN, and you have a suggestion for political strategy written more than 500 years ago explaining the first decision to be taken by our prime minister in 2009.