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Between the hammer and the anvil | Arnold Cassola

Times are tough for AD chairperson Arnold Cassola. Widely blamed (by Nationalists) for the recent collapse of coalition talks, the embattled Green Party leader is keen to air his side of the debate.

Raphael Vassallo
9 May 2017, 8:00am
AD chairperson Arnold Cassola
AD chairperson Arnold Cassola
As we all know, coalition negotiations between Alternattiva Demokratika and the Nationalist Party have broken down. It was reported that the main bone of contention concerned the name of the new party; which admittedly does seem a petty detail, amid such weighty affairs of state. Prof. Cassola: can you give us a clarification of what actually happened, from your perspective? Was it really just about a name?

The issue of the name, in reality, was just the tip of the iceberg. This was not about the name, it was all about strategy. Let’s not beat about the bush: the reality, at least as of last Saturday, is that your latest polls show that all the votes of PN, Marlene [Farrugia], us [AD] and the switchers – counted all together – remain fewer than Joseph Muscat’s tally. This means that, for a coalition to win against criminal politicians like Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, and Brian Tonna, etc... it needs to convince traditional Labour voters, who are literally sickened by the way Muscat’s government is operating, to vote for the coalition.

Our assessment is that, if you have a list under the heading ‘Partit Nazzjonalista’, unfortunately – because of how this country is, and has always been: with people who say ‘I have blue blood’; ‘I was Nationalist/Labour from when I was in my mother’s womb’, etc. – those voters will never feel comfortable voting for anything that has the PN emblem on it. Hence the name: what we were saying was, come up with another name, so that those voters can vote for the coalition. We suggested ‘Qawsalla’ [Rainbow], but it could have been anything else:  Alliance for Malta, Coalition for Malta, whatever.

It could even have been, though I don’t like the idea myself, ‘Forza Nazjonali’. But the PN was absolutely inflexible on this. We told them: to convince those voters, we need an inclusive, not exclusive, party list; one that reflects the diversity and plurality of the component parties. And like it or not, we have 2,000 core voters who vote AD 1 and 2, and stop there. 50% of AD’s voters do not continue their vote across party lines, because they can’t bear voting for the bigger parties. So if we came out on the PN ticket and under the name ‘PN’, the coalition would immediately have lost those 2,000 votes. We would also lose the potential of thousands of honest Labourites, who love Malta, but who see the obscenities [hnizrijiet] of this government from Panama onwards, and want to protest against the way Joseph Muscat has governed.

But if the choice is PN, with the PN emblem, they will never vote for the coalition. There are a lot of angry Nationalists out there; I have received many insults and threats in the past four days, from hundreds of people. I can understand the dilemma. It’s everybody’s dilemma. It’s a question of strategy. To win, you have to convince both those Labourites and the AD voters. We believe that the name was an obstacle. But [now that things have worked out this way], and AD is contesting on its own, we see our role as to win the votes of all those who cannot bear the governance of Joseph Muscat, but who don’t feel comfortable voting for the PN party list. The AD list is the natural, normal and ordinary list for these people...  

At the same time, we are talking about a coalition that has come together specifically for one purpose: to remove Joseph Muscat from office. Is that enough to form the basis of a coalition that intends to govern, if elected...? 


... then the next question has to be, what common ground could there be between AD and the PN to form a government? There are huge, historical and very conspicuous policy differences between the two parties. 

I think that the coalition issue, at least for this election, seems to be closed. We left the door open; it is still open from our end. What I can tell you is that we went [to those meetings] so well-prepared, that we didn’t just have a statute to register the new party... it [the statute] would have been only for the purpose of the election; it was even written in the statute that, the day after the election, the party would dissolve and each component party continue on its own.

We weren’t suggesting – as some tried to spin it – that the Nationalist Party had to change its name. Not at all. Nor Marlene, either. Nobody, not even us. All parties would have remained as they are; but, for the purpose of the election, and because of the electoral law, we would have established a new party for two months, to contest this election. Once the election is over, after some time, a dissolution clause comes into effect, which means that all parties go back to how they were before. But we didn’t go just with this statute; we also went with a 25-point manifesto of principles. All things considered, the PN told us: ‘we don’t seem to have any major differences between us; we agree on the basic principles’...

On those 25 points, you mean?


But other more generic differences between the parties do exist...  on party financing, the environment, all sorts of other issues.

Naturally, there will be differences. I can name some from now: for instance, the PN is all-out in favour of a tunnel between Malta and Gozo. We will oppose that; without a doubt. The PN is in favour of spring hunting. We will oppose that, too. But in spite of these differences – which are great, even though we will be making our parliamentary position clear from the outset – there is, unfortunately, the current major problem of governance: the problem Joseph Muscat got us all into. I would never have imagined that, 30 years after we almost ended up in a civil war – circa 1987 – he would have got us back into a state where we are discussing problems of governance [on this level]. Some might say it is all rumour...  but I think that, once there is a data cloud containing scanned documents, those documents will come out during the campaign. The ‘cloud’ will burst, and start raining a few documents. But, so far, we haven’t seen them yet... I’m referring mainly to the Egrant issue here...  so, on that aspect alone, I cannot really comment at this stage. But on the other things which have evidently emerged: kickbacks from the sale of passports, the Panama revelations, etc... these are grave issues of bad governance that are eroding the moral and ethical fibre of the country. Unfortunately, those issues have to come first and foremost...

Yet it seems we are moving away from the Egrant issue, onto more ‘familiar’ corruption territory: kickbacks, etc. The direct link with Joseph Muscat appears to be receding, and even the amounts of money involved are lower. Is there a chance that the criminality being discussed has also been exaggerated for political reasons?

In my opinion, no. We’ve always had corruption cases in the past; but now it’s on an international scale...

That’s true of the Panama Papers, but the latest allegations concern kickbacks paid locally to Keith Schembri through the IIP scheme. There is an international angle, but it’s not the same as Azerbaijani money being laundered through an account belonging to the PM’s wife...

With all due respect, if you’ve deliberately opened companies in Panama, in the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, etc, you would have done it for a reason. Nobody is as naive as that. And Muscat’s great mistake – this is why he now has an albatross hanging around his neck – [was that he didn’t] sack them immediately. Even if there was no money [in the companies], the fact that one even thought of doing that, in itself displays a complete lack of ethics, and as such is not acceptable in politics under any circumstances. But instead [of sacking them], he got himself entangled with them for 13 months; and the suspicion now is that these three political gangsters – Schembri, Tonna and Mizzi – are leading the prime minister by the nose. 

If the Egrant allegations are verified...

...Then we’ll be at a whole other dimension...

... well, it would signify that Muscat is himself part of the gang. Yet such a serious allegation remains unproven (at least for now). Aren’t there too many uncertainties and question marks around this case?

That is why I am not talking about Egrant at this stage. I am only talking about the other cases; and those are certainties. Plus, there is another problem concerning the Malta Financial Services Authority. How can the MFSA give a permit to someone with no experience to open a bank, in just three months, when there is supposed to be a due diligence process? Then there’s something that the European Greens noticed; I wasn’t even aware of it. The chairman of the MFSA is Prof. Joe Bannister. The European Greens drew my attention to the fact that Bannister is also, at the same time, the vice-chairman of Finance Malta. Do you realise the significance? Finance Malta goes abroad to advertise the incentives to [set up companies] in Malta. So the man who advertises Malta abroad, when back in Malta, is the one who performs due diligence on the same companies. When you see all these elaborate connections [bizzilla], they are truly suspicious. And the bad name they have generated for Malta overseas, and the doubts that have been shed on Malta’s financial services sector, is a tremendous shame for our country.

Meanwhile, AD is now back at the same position, more or less, it has always been in elections. The electoral reform that was supposed to happen, never happened...

That was another of Muscat’s broken promises: to have a ‘Constitutional convention’... the usual empty rhetoric. He took us for a ride on this too. He did nothing...

Either way, AD is now ‘between the hammer and the anvil’, so to speak...

We always were...

And the dynamics are quite paradoxical. As a party, AD aims to elect a candidate in this election. If it manages, and no party gains the 50%+1 necessitated by the Constitution, we will be in a situation where no party can form a government...

The party with the largest number of votes still forms a government, even if under the 50% threshold...

Why so much pressure on AD with every election, then?

Because, obviously AD takes votes from the traditional parties... 

So there isn’t this great danger that the 1987 amendment won’t work if AD elects an MP? Wouldn’t we have a hung parliament under those circumstances?

If we elect an MP and no party gets an absolute majority, then yes, that’s different. According to the Constitution, nobody automatically forms a government. But why do you call that ‘a hung parliament’? There would be a coalition government, as happens in most of Europe... ah, but then, then they tell us we’d be ‘blackmailing’ other parties. Sorry, but with all due respect... we have a history of seriousness. Even now, with so many people angry with us – that’s why I wanted to clarify the press reports about the ‘name’. We were open to any name; it was about strategy. The fact that we are contesting this election also means we are saving a lot of votes. If we did not contest, you would only have the choice of ‘Partit Nazzjonalista’ and ‘Partit Laburista’...

... what about PD?

No, because PD is contesting on the PN ticket. All those who think there’s going to be ‘Orange’ [on the ballot sheet], or photos, or logos... they’re mistaken. There will be the logo of the PN, in blue, and the names of candidates in alphabetical order. Marlene Farrugia will take her place with all the others. Then, in brackets, there will be a nickname. ‘Tal-Orangjo’. It’s like saying, ‘In-Niksu’ or ‘Il-Fratell’.  Whatever.

OK, but for those thinking there will be a distinction: it’s a list. The list will be: PL, in red; PN, blue... and AD, in black.  Because we can’t use our colour, according to law. We are going to give the opportunity to those thousands of honest Maltese, who know, deep in their hearts, that we can’t carry on with Joseph Muscat and this trio... and who want to show him they can’t carry on; but who cannot bring themselves to... they don’t feel comfortable giving their number 1 to the ‘blue’; to the Nationalist Party. We are giving those people the opportunity to express their anger with Joseph Muscat, by voting for us. And we don’t have this tradition of fear when they see the AD logo; like you have, unfortunately, when people see the ‘Torca’ or the ‘Maghduma’ – depending which perspective you look from. These people, from the day they were born, have been told that ‘the others’ are devils. They’re not ‘devils’, of course. They are ordinary people. But unfortunately, this mentality exists...

Last question: how realistically do you rate AD’s chances of winning a seat; and, seeing as coalitions can be formed after elections... how would you approach a scenario where a coalition could be formed with Labour? To be excluded out of hand, to be considered on certain conditions...?

As to the first question: this is a difficult election... but on the other hand, though there are many angry people: like I said, I’ve received hundreds of insults each day... but [I also received messages from] a lot of sincere people: people who are genuinely in a dilemma; who are crying for the state of the country. They feel the world is collapsing about their ears. That’s why I say, look at the state Muscat’s government has got us to... to these people, I sent private messages explaining, as I explained to you, why the coalition didn’t happen.

But electing a seat will be difficult. Let us not forget, however, that the Maltese system allows for the ‘Number 2’ vote. And 3, and 4. So all those who will say: I have to give 1 to Labour, because that’s the way I am from birth’; and likewise, those who say the same thing about PN... and perhaps there are those of our voters who now feel this way. Today, they might feel they have to do the same. Fair enough. It’s a dilemma that has split the country down the middle, dividing families, etc. But let’s not forget that the Number 2 can be given to AD as well. Our system is actually designed for that. While giving your 1 to your usual party, there is a system of vote-inheritance... it can be used to elect an AD MP without jeopardising the election.

As for the coalition question: if AD elects an MP, and Joseph Muscat receives a mandate to form a government... he is not going to be exonerated from the magisterial enquiry. That is what will determine whether Joseph Muscat is at fault or not, with regard to Egrant. But the others – the trio – those are proven cases. This is not something we have discussed within the party; but my feeling is that, before even beginning any negotiations with Muscat... I would say, ‘Show me a picture of Castille. It’s this building here, right? On this side there’s Merchants Street; on the other, St Paul’s Street. Now: ALL this area, including those streets, are out of bounds for Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna. If you [Muscat] are thinking that any of those three can get even to the first step of the stairway to Castile... forget it. I, Arnold Cassola, will not be willing to discuss a coalition’.