Right, that’s it. I have decided on a career change. I am going to ghost-write Lawrence Gozi’s autobiography, entitled: “How to make a serious mess of an election campaign, in three simple stages.” Actually, make that four. With a special introduction by Paul Borg Olivier.
Step 1: Concede defeat... three days before D-Day.
I am writing this on a Friday, the so-called “day of reflection” – you know, when newspapers are not allowed to comment on the election, but bloggers can write whatever the heck they like. Now, unless someone invented the time machine while I wasn’t looking, “EP Election 2009” hasn’t actually taken place yet. With the exception of 1,044 votes cast last week (out of a total of 1,077 eligible voters), and some 16,000 voting documents left uncollected, there is still everything to fight for. As Sarkozy might put it: “Oui, ensemble, tout devient possible...” But not according to Lawrence Gonzi.
Incredible as this may sound, the Prime Minister and leader of the Nationalist Party has already conceded defeat: “No, I don’t view the European Parliament elections as a vote of confidence in my government,” he told a news conference last Wednesday... which is basically another way of saying: “Yes, I think we’re heading for a complete and utter electoral massacre, and I’m doing my damnedest to minimise the impact of inevitable defeat. So on the off-chance that you were still thinking of giving us a vote next Saturday, well, you may as well not bother...”
Please note: this was last Wednesday, when (according to our polls, anyway) a sizeable chunk of the electorate still hadn’t made up its mind...
I don’t know. Maybe there’s some subliminal genius at work that I just can’t see. Maybe I’m just too stupid to appreciate the fine art of electioneering. But to my ignorant ears, it sounds like pretty much the daftest thing ever uttered by a single member of the subgenus Homo sapiens sapiens.
And besides, why was he so convinced of impending defeat? I myself don’t share his conviction, even if our own polls clearly do. Call me a superstitious nutcase, but I think the PN might conceivably pull it off against all expectation. Everything really is possible, especially after March 2008.
Is this so far-fetched a notion? Is it so utterly inconceivable that the PN will retain its two seats, and... who knows, maybe even bag the sixth? If you ask me, the Nationalists are (not for the first time) applying bandages to wounds they have yet to actually sustain. But the important thing at this stage is not what I think. It’s what Dr Gonzi thinks, and as the above quote so explicitly spells out, he has already waved the white flag before a single shot was fired.
Step 2. Take ownership of an election defeat you have already conceded What could be cleverer than informing the electorate that you have already lost the election? Why, tell them that the defeat is attributable entirely to yourself.
Believe it or not, that is exactly what Gonzi did over the last two weeks. I attended some of the canvassed events in person, and I followed nearly all the others on TV or over the Internet. Without a single exception, Gonzi was always at the centre of things. Whether being introduced by Simon Busuttil, or guffawing into a microphone before an audience of propped-up stiffs, it was always Gonzi, Gonzi, Gonzi, Gonzi, Gonzi.
And in fact, it was only Gonzi. Apart from the individual candidates themselves, I did not recognise a single PN exponent anywhere within a five-mile radius of a campaign event. Of course, I could be mistaken. They could have turned up in disguise, or been hiding under the table. But as far as I can tell, the only Cabinet minister to even squeak over the past two weeks was Austin Gatt. And what did he say? Oh, nothing much. Only that it was a “mistake” to backdate the utility bills to October (thus providing Joseph Muscat with a little more enriched uranium to add to his nuclear arsenal)... and – in case the knife hadn’t sunk in deep enough – that the “mistake” had been made by the Nationalist Party.
Ouch. That’s what I call a pre-emptive cop-out. Sensing defeat in the air – and the inevitable finger-pointing that would no doubt follow – Austin Gatt bravely stepped forth to disown all responsibility for the single most unpopular decision this government has taken in the past five years.
But no matter. Whoever was to blame for the revised utility tariffs, only one person can realistically be held responsible for the success or failure of the PN’s election strategy. That person is Lawrence Gonzi himself, who – for some obscure, unaccountable, unfathomable reason – chose to take full ownership of an election campaign which he himself had already written off as an inevitable defeat.
And while Gonzi was busy eclipsing his own party’s 10 contestants at every single event, Joseph Muscat was equally busy turning his own campaign into an all-out assault on the GonziPN.
Gonzi, his billboards declared, had “lost control” of the country. Gonzi had “shocked” us with thosee water and electricity bills. Gonzi this, Gonzi that, Gonzi the other....
What better way to publicly substantiate Labour’s thesis – i.e., that this election is actually a popular verdict of Gonzi’s administrative capabilities – than by forcing us all to associate the entire campaign with none other than Lawrence Gonzi?
Step 3. Canvas for your rival OK, so having taken ownership of a doomed campaign, and informed your own supporters you have absolutely no chance of winning... how else could you possibly go on to make matters worse? Short of picking up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and shooting off your own foot?
I know! Go around saying that other candidates from other parties stand a better chance of getting elected than you. Yes, that should do the trick...
Honestly. Just when I think nothing will ever surprise me again, what do you know? Gonzi surprises me. And what perfect timing, too... when your own campaign strategists – the bloggers and the buggers and the spin doctors and all – are going into overdrive to put across the clean opposite message.
A vote for AD is a vote wasted, they all said. Cassola? Forget it, he doesn’t have a hope in hell. One headline even ran: “Arnold: cut your losses and run...”
But then, just as the final nail is hammered in Cassola’s coffin, along frolics Lawrence Gonzi, sprightly as a lamb, and reduces all their hard work to naught with a single, astonishing remark. “On June 6 we’re choosing five MEPs – but if the Lisbon treaty is approved, Malta will get the sixth seat, and this will be given to the candidate left hanging. And do you know who was left hanging five years ago? It was you who mentioned him, not me: Cassola was left hanging. The vote is yours. You decide.”
Er, WHAT? Did I hear right? Was that Gonzi doing a little free canvassing for the Greens, or did someone just slip an acid tab into my coffee?
No, I was not hallucinating. He really said that, and if you don’t believe me there is even an audio recording to prove it.
But what on earth was the intended message? “If you don’t vote for us... someone else might get elected”? You don’t say! And besides: what does it tell the thousands of Nationalists who actually disapprove of the party’s position in favour of spring hunting, if not... vote Arnold on Saturday?
Well, like I said before: maybe Lawrence Gonzi is just too damn clever for me to understand. But if I didn’t know any better, I would not hesitate to define that comment as the single, most mind-numbingly spectacular own goal ever scored in the history of political football.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister can insist as much as he likes that “this was not a vote of confidence in his government”. But it was. And he made it that way...