Sant’s sudden major surgery may well come as a shock to many but it has effectively left the PN in disarray and disarmed. Paradoxically, it also places Labour and its leader in a stronger political position
News that Alfred Sant was not well first came to light on Christmas eve. Weeks before, during his public appearances, his frailness had been noted.
On Monday, MaltaToday discovered Alfred Sant was to undergo surgery to remove a growth in his intestines. Labour top officials were in a state of shock.
Then, in what many insiders describe as a communications disaster, on Thursday Super One announced by way of a flash news broadcast that Alfred Sant would be undergoing surgery. No specific details were given. It was the one sure way of fomenting speculation about the real cause of his ill-health.
In an attempt to emulate foreign medical interventions on public figures, the Labour party announced that it would be holding a press briefing to issue a medical bulletin. However, unlike other medical press briefings, it took the bizarre step of forbidding the press from asking questions. Afterwards, it unthinkingly called on the press to act ethically.
The lack of details about the real nature of the surgery led to mass conjecture and rumour mongering. Yet close aides confirmed to MaltaToday that the intervention had much to do with colon surgery, and the growth removed appeared to be benign.
Nevertheless, this major operation, although successful, still means that Sant will effectively be out of action for some time.
If the sudden illness left the Labour party suddenly rudderless, it contributed in no small way to disorienting the Nationalist camp, caught unawares by this unexpected political scenario.
With his sudden illness, the PN has been stripped of their golden opportunity to call an early election and robbed of a chance to embark on a premeditated campaign: bludgeoning Alfred Sant, their prized electoral “asset”.
After years of demonising the Labour leader, it will be next to impossible to plan an election strategy that normally directs the line of fire at his persona.
Sant’s medical condition has ironically turned out to be a plus for the Labour party, yet many within the Labour grassroots found this difficult to comprehend. Sant with his appetite for electioneering tactics will no doubt read into this.
Sant’s health condition may have comes as a shock to friend and foe alike but it nonetheless placed the Labour party in an unthinkable pole position.
It is very unlikely that Sant will call it a day, his medical condition may put him out of action for a long time and reduce his public appearances, yet this in itself is what the Nationalist campaign was hoping Sant would never do. That is, make sparse appearances. The PN had been hoping for Colosseum-style occasions to battle Sant in public, the time he is weakest.
The last 14 years have confirmed that Sant is a resilient survivor, and surely unwilling to want to move out at this critical stage. He is clearly enthralled by historical political figures, and will find solace in those personalities who continued soldiering in politics even though they were taken seriously ill. And today, modern medicine can keep health ailments at bay for unusually long periods.
However, if his health condition worsens the scenario may well change, but not to the detriment of Labour.
Suggestions that Mangion or Falzon would move in to replace Sant were quickly quashed by insiders, who said that this was not on the cards; and even if it were, there would definitely be a contest with new contenders.
Most in the Labour Party know that if Sant was forced to retire for health reasons, they would not be able to enter an election with the present set-up of deputy leaders. There would definitely be a search for a new face.
But such a topic is strictly taboo in Labour’s inner circles.
In all scenarios, the MLP only stands to gain. The last thing the PN would wish for is a new leader.
Whatever the future brings, there is little doubt that the Labour is strangely in one of those unforeseen win-win situations.
As if to prove the rule set by the mysterious hidden hand moving and shaking things since he became PN leader and Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi finds himself once again overtaken by events just as he was making up his mind on what is perhaps his most momentous decision in Castille.
It is undisputedly the event that has derailed the whole country, which is bound to condition immediate and future decisions, and which most of all impinges on Gonzi’s big question on when he should hold the election.
Timing is the first political casualty to follow Sant’s hospitalisation. At the PN headquarters and around the Cabinet table alike, the Nationalist officials and government ministers were simply speechless as the news of the Opposition leader’s ill health started seeping out of Mater Dei just days before Christmas.
Not in spite of Sant’s human misfortune but because of it, Gonzi and his party are suddenly gagged, bound and with their hands tied as never before.
The Prime Minister must be sorry for not having called the election soon after the budget and before the introduction of the euro.
It is not the first time Gonzi has found himself overtaken by events – his career at the helm has been characterised by precisely that. He is, after all, not the most decisive Prime Minister to ever head the country, although some of his decisions are to be lauded for the achieved results.
But now, what is arguably a Prime Minister’s greatest prerogative after the constitution of Cabinet – election day – finds itself dictated by forces that are way beyond Gonzi’s control, and much more unpredictable than the impending inflation feared to arrive with the euro.
The date being touted until last week was somewhere between mid-February and early March, but with the Labour leader still in recovery and with the many uncertainties surrounding his ability to lead a potentially exhausting election campaign, Gonzi is bound to suspend any decision on the election date until the waters get somewhat clearer.
Although his term ends effectively in August, he will in all likelihood go for a May election, avoiding a summer campaign at all costs.
But the great unknown in the equation is even bigger when one considers that his political rival is, at least for the time being, out of action.
The endless possibilities and scenarios for a Labour Party without Sant serve only to panic the Nationalist machine even more.
The strategy group will have to go back to the drawing board, scrapping every hint of any negative campaign targeting Sant, which has overnight become taboo. A recovering opponent is untouchable according to the ancient rules of warfare.
It would backfire equally badly to “just go for the kill”, as one of Gonzi’s close officials described the idea of calling an early election to catch Labour in a state of confusion, dismissing the possibility outright as political suicide.
Only a ruthless villain would attack an ailing enemy. And Gonzi does not appear to be a ruthless villain.
Yet for the PN, Sant is the known quantity: the tried and tested leader and recipient of much “investment” from his opponents – anything from smear campaigns attempting to discredit and demonise him, to constant propaganda bombardments about his historic U-turns; even a book with a psychological analysis of Sant’s personality.
The open secret among Cabinet members and PN officials was that Sant is the PN’s greatest asset, prone to gaffes and colossal misjudgements spanning from Birzebbuga to Brussels.
That he has remained at the helm against all odds confirms their conviction that he should be an easy leader for Gonzi to duel with in what has become a presidential style election.
Remove Sant from the equation, and all the voters who used to say they would never vote Labour under his leadership would have to seriously think again about their preference.
It might be pure, uncommitted voters’ bluff, after all, but the general perception even within the Nationalist ranks is that if Labour changes leader, the PN only stands to lose.
In any case, whatever the scenario to be unveiled in the coming weeks and months as Sant battles his illness, the PN will inevitably have to ditch all their digs at the Harvard PhD and focus on their own man and his achievements. Gonzi’s achievements, more than those of anyone else in the Cabinet, given that his ministers’ abysmal performance on various fronts have warranted the Prime Minister’s direct intervention on numerous occasions: including having the last say in the conclusion of the very hospital which now hosts the Labour leader.
Overtaken by events as usual, facing a yet unknown opponent, Gonzi might well end up inadvertently following his own promise of starting a new way of doing politics. But then, Sant’s motto for the last budget could not ring truer than now: too little, too late.