News | Sunday, 07 June 2009
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What’s at stake?

A lot is riding on this election, but the stakes are higher for some than for others. RAPHAEL VASSALLO looks into the possible implications of today’s result for the various players concerned

For Joseph Muscat
It is the one thing that eluded Lawrence Gonzi in the last general election, as well as Muscat’s own predecessor Alfred Sant in the 2004 MEP election.
An absolute majority of first-count votes has become, if not an absolute necessity, at least a vitally important target for PL leader Joseph Muscat. Apart from consolidating his own position as ‘saviour’ of the Labour Party – which, after a divisive and visceral leadership battle, was in danger of imminent fragmentation only one year ago – an absolute majority on a national level would deal a crippling blow to the perceived legitimacy of the beleaguered “GonziPN” administration.
With polls strongly suggesting a victory for Labour, the Nationalist Party has already tried to deflate Muscat’s ego by (among other strategies) trying to project his “unofficial” target as a virtually unreachable four-seat majority in the European Parliament. But as his own campaign clearly illustrated, the EP was far away from Muscat’s mind when it came to devising strategy. His target is considerably less ambitious in terms of seats – he will most likely content himself with retaining his present tally of three, with a fighting chance to claim the sixth if it becomes available – but far, far more insidious in its implications for the party in government.
If the Labour Party succeeds in its mission to surpass the 50% mark – a likely prospect by all accounts – the dividends would be considerable. His own stature within the party would grow, and after such a clinical and disciplined campaign, the result would also help dispel Labour’s previous image as a gaffe-prone and self-destructive organisation that cannot be trusted to ever assume the reins of government.
Conversely, the prospects of failure are not too daunting for the young PL leader. Unlike his opposite number in the Nationalist Party, Muscat does not appear to have any disgruntled backbenchers to contend with at the moment. His position cannot conceivably be challenged, and – barring the all-but impossible scenario of a surprise PN win today – a majority of seats will still be interpreted as a victory, even without the extra adrenaline boost provided by an absolute majority of votes.
All things told, Joseph Muscat will be laughing, no matter the outcome. What remains to be seen is how loud, and how long. 3

Lawrence Gonzi
If facial expressions of Net TV presenters are anything to go by, this election is being taken as a death-knell for the success of the GonziPN strategy in March 2008.
In a remarkable turnaround over the past 18 months, the same motif that won the PN the election has now become its most visible liability.
Only two of today’s several possible scenarios can conceivably be welcomed by the Nationalist Party – and neither quite amounts to a victory. The first would be a relative majority for Muscat, which would allow the Prime Minister a little breathing space, and silence his critics within the party at least for a while. The second is the (likely) prospect of PN retaining its two seats, as well as (considerably less likely) clinching the sixth.
All other scenarios can only be described as defeats: starting with the projected voter turnout, which at the time of writing promises to be conspicuously lower than 2004. Added to the almost 16,000 uncollected voting documents, as well as indications that voter abstention has been higher in predominantly Nationalist strongholds than elsewhere, all factors currently point towards an electoral snub for the man who last year promised us “peace of mind”.
Viewed from whichever angle you choose, the implications are not encouraging for Lawrence Gonzi, who happens to also find himself fending off an increasingly vocal backbencher revolt. Leading the pack of disgruntled MPs appears to be Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who strongly hinted to this newspaper that he has no intention of simply fizzling out into nothing, as the PM so evidently hoped he would.
Divisions have even been felt in the less crucial local council elections: with activists faithful to backbencher Robert Arrigo publicly complaining of a non-level playing field among candidates in the run-up to yesterday’s election.
Ironically, it seems that Gonzi has become a prisoner of his own persona. If last year’s election was won on the strength of his own credibility, a defeat today would by the same token also spell the end of that same credibility, at least in the eyes of a segment of Nationalist voters. Already the Prime Minister has suggested he would “pay attention” to the message from the electorate, and where possible take steps to address their concerns. But it remains unclear whether he will even be capable of pleasing disgruntled voters, when so many of their complaints – such as hunting, to name but one – now lie outside his immediate control.
Unless today’s vote count disproves all independent polls and predictions, and the PN claw back some crucial votes for a respectable result, Lawrence Gonzi will be a wounded prime minister as of tomorrow. How deeply depends on other factors outside his control – including the (admittedly unlikely) possibility of the sixth seat going to the Green party candidate.

Arnold Cassola
In a cautiously worded statement to this newspaper some weeks ago, AD leader Arnold Cassola conceded that it would be a “disaster” if he got 2% or less in this election.
With hindsight it was a calculated gamble, which will most likely pay off. The chances of such a dismal result now appear remote, with the Green Party chairman experiencing a last minute surge in voter preference according to our polls this week. And if rumours are anything to go by, he might also benefit from a whispering campaign – started on Facebook late on Friday – for Labour voters to carry on their vote to AD.
This would radically alter his prospects as far as winning the sixth seat is concerned, but at the same time, there are uncomfortable implications for Alternattiva Demokratika. If today’s count does reveal a trend whereby Cassola inherits votes from Labour, the PN will no doubt seize on this fact to concretise the perception of AD gravitating towards a possible coalition with PL in 2013: a notion which remains anathema to the many pale blue voters who may otherwise be tempted to ditch the PN for AD.
Evidence of collusion between Labour and AD may therefore embarrass Cassola, but if it translates into a seat in the European Parliament it is unlikely he will complain too much. The same, however, cannot be said for the PN, which could only interpret a seat for Cassola as a veritable election nightmare.
There are a number of reasons why the PN will fight against this prospect tooth and nail. Symbolically, Cassola in the EP would shatter the painstakingly created illusion of third party politics as a ‘no go area’ in the minds of Nationalist voters.
Besides, the financial and logistical perks associated with the EP would provide the Greens with a sorely needed revenue stream, furnishing the party with the resources it needs to compete at general election level.
The alternative scenario – i.e., an umpteenth defeat – would no doubt be disappointing, but not necessarily crippling for either Cassola or the Greens. Barring the possibility of his own worst-case scenario prognostic, failure to elect a representative to the EP will simply leave AD where it already is: back at the drawing board.


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