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Editorial | Tuesday, 02 June 2009

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Lessons from a failed campaign

Perhaps the greatest irony of the 2004 EP elections in Malta was the fact that Labour bagged three of the five available MEP seats when it had been so keen to prevent Malta ever joining the EU. Despite the accurate poll predictions, the 2004 result still felt like a surprise and a commission was appointed by the PN to conduct a post mortem on its campaign.
The “secret” report was leaked to the press two years after the fact and made very interesting reading: instead of galvanizing all the party’s resources, the Campaign Strategy Group appointed by Lawrence Gonzi appears to have made vital elements feel left out. Ministers did not feel that they had a role to play, backbenchers said that had felt left in the dark and an unidentified prominent PN figure who offered his services was told to keep a low profile.
In the campaign itself the strategy group managed to disregard its own advice, and ended up attacking Alternattiva Demokratika despite having previously resolved not to do so. Another mistake identified by the Commission was the failure to mobilise resources in districts where no local election was to take place. Among the advantages gained by Labour was its clear strategy to emphasise local issues over European ones.
There is no way of knowing at this time to what extent the commission’s findings have served the PN in the 2009 election, but some things do appear to have been done differently. The spearhead of the PN campaign is no longer its secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier, but its prime candidate: Simon Busuttil MEP.
Having bagged the lion’s share of the PN vote in 2004, Busuttil is way ahead of the field in the polls in 2009 also. He can afford to take responsibility for campaign strategy far more than any of his competitors. It still does not explain the back seat taken by Paul Borg Olivier but the PN is making use of a resource it has available because of the peculiar circumstance of Busuttil’s electoral prominence.
Once more Labour has set the pace in this campaign by focusing on local issues, but the PN this time has responded in like vein: Labour’s gambit on immigration has been parried with the PN’s slogan of more employment; Labour’s thrust through the VAT refund issues meets a counterstroke through the blow by blow account of Labour MEPs’ voting foibles in Brussels in the past five years.
Although these matters are EU connected, it is the local aspect that dominates.
If we were to review the candidates’ statements, we would find even more local skirmishes º many altogether unrelated to anything they can ever deliver as MEPs. Does it matter that so and so is all for the holding of a referendum on divorce or that another MEP wannabe leads the assault on some planning violation?
The wider continental issues are largely neglected. Apart from Libertas candidate Mary Gauci, the Lisbon Treaty gets mentioned only thanks to its effect of granting Malta a sixth seat in the Brussels parliament. Despite recruitment of bona fide environmentalists by both major parties, climate change – a crucial issue best addressed at EU level – remains a poor relation, invited to the campaign as a matter of form.
In the 2004 post mortem it was pointed out to the PN, that its popularity was at a low ebb 12 months after the euphoria of winning a general election, and its support had been disoriented by the bitter contest for the party leadership and disillusioned by the appointment of Eddie Fenech Adami as President of the Republic.
This time around the PN can claim a coup in the appointment of George Abela as President, but suffers from the same disillusionment a year from the last general election, with the 12-month saga over electricity bills taking a significant toll. Losing the EP elections may have become the fate of every government taking office just one year before, and the Busuttil strategy seems to take this on board.
The PN is not engaging all its resources and appears to be preparing to absorb the blow of yet another defeat. Candidates who taunt their adversaries with the fact that Lawrence Gonzi will still be Prime Minister after this election, no matter the outcome, appear to have conceded defeat. Busuttil’s genius in these circumstances appears to be in going with the flow: a PN advert that gives out that the PN will have a hard time electing two MEPs is an inspired lie. The PN cannot help electing two MEPs, but by proposing such a complete rout they hope to scour the bottom of the barrel and maximise the turnout for their party.
Busuttil is sure to secure one of the two safe PN seats, in fact he is sure to bag the first one. And by painting a grim picture he nourishes a secret hope of bagging Malta’s sixth seat for the PN, thus equalising several months after the election proper.
That may be about the time for the final phase to be played if and when Busuttil takes Richard Cachia Caruana’s place as Malta EU representative and RCC becomes Malta’s EU Commissioner. Whether or not the PN secure their third seat, they are likely to have three MEPs in 2009, their third qualifying as Busuttil bows out.


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