The surprise nomination in the forthcoming leadership contest for the Nationalist Party has to be Raymond Bugeja, a 61-year-old businessman and restaurant owner who - despite his good intentions - does not stand a chance of getting elected.
Readers will be surprised to learn that Bugeja had shown interest in standing for the Labour Party, reportedly asking the party if he could be guaranteed the position of finance minister if elected. Even his partner, property entrepreneur Sara Grech, had expressed interest in being a Labour candidate.
Shorn of the slogans, political programme and marketing campaign that Bugeja says he will not adopt in this leadership bid, it is hard to see what sort of factor this outsider candidate will put into play in a contest that is likely to be dominated by two strong personalities.
Until Mario de Marco presented his nomination on Friday, it seemed a foregone conclusion that deputy leader Simon Busuttil would be the next PN leader. But with the former minister now in the race, it is clear that Busuttil is in for a bumpy ride.
It is also clear that former foreign minister Francis Zammit Dimech's presence in the run-up to the election may dent more of Busuttil's support than de Marco's: the eventuality of a run-off between Busuttil and de Marco would see the latter scooping up the Zammit Dimech support, so the race is truly on.
From Simon to Francis
Busuttil, who vows to make the PN a 'people's party' once again, clearly has the backing of the party structures and the Lawrence Gonzi clan.
In the run-up to the election, he was appointed as Lawrence Gonzi's special envoy on the same day that Gonzi reconfirmed himself party leader in a one-horse race after suffering a debacle in parliament at the hands of Franco Debono. Despite his earnest bid to reconnect with civil society and the electorate, the PN still lost by a staggering 36,000 votes.
But even this has not been enough to put Busuttil off the leadership contest. "Everyone must carry the responsibility for that result and I am ready to do just that. The PN is now in Opposition and I am a member of the Opposition. However, one must also look at the roles which others played," Busuttil said.
Busuttil was elected as deputy leader on a platform promising the PN a fighting chance during the 2013 election. But he believes that this shouldn't automatically disqualify him from the leadership race. "Should these three months disqualify me from paying service to the PN? I don't agree with this argument, especially when considering this would also mean disqualifying ministers, parliamentary secretaries, parliamentary assistants and almost everyone from contesting," he said.
He also has warned the party councillors from electing somebody who does not have the necessary credentials for leadership. In a clear reference to Raymond Bugeja, he said it would be "a mistake for the party to elect someone without experience".
Busuttil's popularity with the 'floater' suffered a setback during the election where he seemed to display a robotic appearance and was criticised for his lack of collegiality. Even substance suffered, as he came across as a superficial and ill-prepared politician.
Francis Zammit Dimech is the 'honest' guy in the leadership contest but he is too representative of the past, a point which PN candidate Gejtu Vella underlined in a column he penned for the Independent, mocking Zammit Dimech's age (he is 58, and will be 63 in five years' time) when the former UHM secretary-general garnered a disappointing 229 first-count votes in the last elections.
Presenting his candidature, Zammit Dimech said: "We have a great challenge ahead of us to renew, strengthen and recover the trust of the Maltese and Gozitan people," pledging an open party that offers participation, transparency, responsibility and collective action, and an Opposition that is vigilant and ready to be an alternative government.
Until recently foreign minister, Zammit Dimech stepped into the shoes of Tonio Borg after he was appointed Commissioner to the European Union. Zammit Dimech wants to see the PN embark on a reach-out and membership drive, update its political programme to reflect "a precise illustration of Maltese society and its trends", improve the party's communication and the beleaguered finances, and also appoint a chief executive that would manage the party's non-political daily business.
He has pledged a "return to the party's roots" to bring the party structures closer to its grassroots, also said he wanted the PN to hold a national congress and various conferences that would help it map political positions and policies.
Coupled with a membership drive, Zammit Dimech said that if elected leader he will see to the finances of the party - currently in disarray due to years of mismanagement - saying the PN needed "a clear separation between the commercial and political arms".
Despite Zammit Dimech's good communication skills, he is not seen as a winner in this contest. However it could be that a second round which will very probably see him eliminated and would see most of his votes migrate to Mario de Marco.
The de Marco factor
Mario de Marco was the last to come forward with his nomination. In a short comment to the press, de Marco said this contest was not only a choice between persons but "it is about uniting the people, it is an election which should open the party's doors wide open and welcome young people and who ever has ideas, energy and experience who are ready to give their contribution to the country and the party".
De Marco also pointed out that the 4 May election is about building bridges in a society which is continuously changing, maturing and becoming modern. "We need to be the reflection of today's society and its needs and we should not expect society to be the party's reflection."
The country thrives for positive politics over divisive politics, de Marco said, who believes people want less politics in their daily life but they want more effective politics."
He also admits that the PN is going through a delicate process in which it will decide its future, and that party councillors need the widest choice possible reflecting the different potential in the party.
Though de Marco may not have the backing of the old guard, he promises to be the safest bet for the Nationalist party. He enjoys the backing of one of the oldest institutions in the country: Allied Newspapers Limited, publishers of the Times and the Sunday Times, renowned in being kingmakers when it comes to future PN leaders.
He also has a historical legacy as part of the de Marco dynasty: his father Guido lost the leadership to Eddie Fenech Adami on 1977, but stood by the PN leader as deputy leader until 1998. De Marco's patrician affectation lends the party a liberal candidate that could be essential for the Nationalists to break with the past it has inherited from Lawrence Gonzi.