Additional reporting by Jurgen Balzan and Nestor Laiviera.
Updated with press conference by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Opposition leader Joseph Muscat, statement by AD chairperson Michael Briguglio.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said his government will be forging ahead with its electoral mandate, after losing his one-seat majority with the resignation of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando from the PN parliamentary group.
Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando resigned from the PN today, effectively robbing Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of his one-seat majority, but pledging to keep working with the Nationalist government for the completion of its electoral mandate.
Gonzi started off his press conference by declaring Pullicino Orlando would be collaborating with the government on its electoral programme. "We will have an agenda of laws from our electoral programme, and more are to be published in the coming weeks with the Whistleblowers Act, the cohabitation law and the IVF law," Gonzi said. "Our duty is to complete this electoral mandate and see that we deliver policies that guarantee jobs."
Gonzi said there was no need to seek the President's advice on the loss of his one-seat majority, since there was an understanding with Pullicino Orlando to consult on the government's work programme. "It is a working formula that will allow the government to keep functioning."
The prime minister said he would not enter into the merits of whether the Speaker of the House will have to convene parliament and seek the House's support for Gonzi.
Gonzi said the unusual arrangement will see him consulting Pullicino Orlando on forthcoming measures. "The upcoming Budget is going to be very important, especially within the European context and the changes yet to come from the European Stability Mechanism.
"I hope that, in the weeks to come, the new way of working will deliver results. My appeal is that we seek the national interest... the most important thing is the country, saving jobs and attracting investment, and fostering a good economic environment that guarantees incomes for families and the government."
Joseph Muscat: Malta has 'hung parliament'
In a press conference at 7:50pm, Opposition leader Joseph Muscat said Lawrence Gonzi today had officially lost his majority. "What we have is a government that is working with the conditional external support of an MP. We have a hung parliament that is leaving families and businesses hanging. People are asking who is calling the shots in this country."
Muscat said Gonzi had lost his 'safe pair of hands', saying he had prioritised his internal party problems over those of the country. "He has put power before his duty to the country. The electorate did not vote for a coalition government, but for a Nationalist government, a government that has ended today."
"The decision is now obvious," Muscat said, urging Gonzi to shoulder the responsibility for the current situation his government finds itself in.
He also expressed scepticism regarding Gonzi's assurances that his government would see out its term to the end.
"He has claimed that he addressed the situation more than once before. And each time, he was proven wrong," Muscat said, pointing to Gonzi's previous assurances that the parliamentary dissent was "a closed chapter".
"Today, we have a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. The Prime Minister needs to shoulder the responsibility for this state of affairs, and I expect him to do so," Muscat said.
Asked by the media whether the PL planned to push for an early election, Muscat insisted that the ball was now in Lawrence Gonzi's court, and maintained that the present situation "is very different" compared to when it had presented its motions of confidence earlier during the year.
He also did not commit himself to whether he would call a vote of confidence when parliament convenes, in the event that Gonzi does not dissolve parliament before then. "The opposition will always work towards the national interest," Muscat said, adding that "the only road is an obvious one, and he must take responsibility and not drag his feet," Muscat said, referring to early elections.
In a letter to Lawrence Gonzi, Pullicino Orlando said it was "with sincere regret that I must tender my resignation from the Nationalist Party, effective immediately." He left the PN headquarters at 6:45pm after holding a meeting with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.
Pullicino Orlando said his reason for resigning stemmed from the fact that he did not "feel comfortable militating in a party which has been hijacked by Mr Richard Cachia Caruana and Dr Austin Gatt. Without detracting from the attributes both these individuals may have, I do not subscribe to their way of doing politics."
Pullicino Orlando said that he will be informing the Speaker of the House Michael Frendo as he will no longer be a member of the PN parliamentary group. "I will also be requesting a meeting with him in order to plan a way forward, given the circumstances."
The MP said in his letter that 5,100 constituents had given him their first preference vote in the last general elections, which he contested on the PN ticket. "I will, out of respect for the clear mandate they honoured me with, continue to collaborate in the implementation of the measures outlined in the PN electoral programme for 2008."
Pullicino Orlando's letter confirms that as an independent MP, he will come to a sort of 'coalition' agreement with Gonzi to see that the government completes its five-year mandate. "Given the circumstances, I expect to be consulted by you should any measure which is not specifically mentioned in the electoral programme require my support in Parliament."
It is with some irony that the Prime Minister's coalition of MPs, as MaltaToday described the GonziPN parliamentary group, has now reached its logical conclusion.
"This onerous decision should not, in any way, be interpreted as a reflection of the respect I have for you on a personal level, which remains unaffected," Pullicino Orlando told Gonzi in his resignation letter.
AD: call elections
In a comment posted on Facebook, Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Michael Briguglio said AD was reiterating its call for an announcement of the date of general elections. "Postponing the inevitable will only cause more uncertainty. If in parliament, AD will not act like a primadonna on petty issues, but will work responsibly for progressive change."
Red-letter day for Gonzi
As the MP entered the PN's headquarters for a meeting with Gonzi at 6pm today, just days after his case for the expulsion of party strategist Richard Cachia Caruana was unanimously voted down by the party executive, renewed speculation that the MP will finally break off from the party came from sources who had spoken to Pullicino Orlando in the last 24 hours. "After the RCC debacle it is clear that he has little room for manoeuvre but to break away from the party and declare himself an independent MP," a source told MaltaToday.
Now it is up to Gonzi to either seek a constitutional solution to his parliamentary crisis, or go for early elections when parliament is reconvened in October. He will certainly need Pullicino Orlando's vote if he wants to pass the 2013 Budget in October.
He will not be able to seek the President's advice on the matter: George Abela is on missionary work in Lima, Peru.
There is no doubt that the MP's resignation will hasten calls from Labour for a swift solution to the impending parliamentary quandary. Parliament is in summer recess until 1 October and the government's position may then have to be determined by a vote of confidence.
In January, when Nationalist MP Franco Debono declared that he would not be supporting the government in Parliament, the leader of the Opposition, Joseph Muscat asked the Speaker of the House to re-convene Parliament urgently.
In a letter sent to Speaker Michael Frendo, Muscat asked the Speaker to urgently recall Parliament from its Christmas recess to determine whether the government enjoyed a parliamentary majority to remove the uncertainty that was hindering the country's progress.
The Speaker had turned down the request and justified the decision by saying that Parliament was due to reconvene from the Christmas recess a week later and felt that there was no need to put the date forward.
However this time around there are two major differences to the situation in January: in January the likelihood of government losing its majority was only a threat, which came from Franco Debono's declarations that he would withdraw his support. However if Pullicino Orlando resigns from the party, it would be much more than a plain threat. It would officially mean that the government has 34 MPs, the same number of MPs the Opposition has.
Secondly, in contrast to January, the Parliament will not be reconvening within one week's time but within 10 weeks.
According to Parliament's Permanent Orders, the Speaker can of his own accord or if requested reconvene Parliament earlier than planned but only if he feels the matter is urgent.