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Lawrence Gonzi: albatross or comeback kid?
In the light of the lingering political crisis, can the PN still win with Lawrence Gonzi at its helm?
27 March 2012, 12:00am
"It was not Gonzi who won the last election, but the party as a whole," while adding that it was not enough to be head of government, one had to be a head of government who was close to the people and at the people's disposal to address their needs at all the time.
But can the PN ditch GonziPN without ditching Gonzi, and how can the party renew itself while struggling to remain in government in the face of an unresolved political crisis?
For despite this solemn promise to listen to both party members and voters, opinion polls and the local election results still point towards a certain defeat for the PN in the forthcoming general election.
The latest MaltaToday poll showed the PL enjoying a 14-point advantage over the PN and Muscat enjoying a 14-point trust lead over Gonzi.
The latest council election showed the PL increasing its tally by 3,000 votes over its tally in the 22 localities which had the previous round of elections in 2007, and enjoying a 14-point lead over the PL.
Although the defeat can be partially blamed on massive abstention in Nationalist-leaning areas and a greater mobilisation of Labour voters in Labour leaning areas, the writing is on the wall to the extent that Simon Busuttil - the newly anointed PM's envoy to civil society - has described the latest defeat as an "nothing short of an electoral meltdown.".
This raises the question of whether the PN can stand ever stand a fighting chance with Gonzi as leader and whether the party should think the unthinkable and change its leader before the next election.
The Gonzi dilemma
Lawrence Gonzi was definitely the best asset the party had before the 2008 general elections. Polls showed that while Labour had a 6 to 8 percentage point lead over the Nationalist Party. But Gonzi was consistently more trusted than Labour leader Alfred Sant.
This reasoning prompted party strategists to come up with the GonziPN formula, which effectively turned the 2008 election in to a presidential contest.
To some extent, presidential contests were not a novelty in Malta - with the PN using the 'Eddie Fiducja' slogan in 1992 - but never was the identification between leader and party so direct. Another difference was that Eddie Fenech Adami's strong leadership coexisted with equally strong party structures.
GonziPN was accompanied with concrete steps to recompose the hegemonic block, which turned the PN in to a sort of 'natural party' of government. Gonzi addressed middle class discontentment through promises of tax cuts and a MEPA reform presided by himself. But this project was immediately shot down by the global economic crisis, which robbed the government of its ability to win consent through fiscal manoeuvring.
Surely, as prime minister, Gonzi stood out as a statesman in the international arena during the Libyan crisis and has so far managed to steer Malta away from the worse ravages of the eurozone crisis and to restore vitality in a number of economic sectors like tourism.
But these two notable accomplishments have been obscured by two self-inflicted mistakes; namely the secrecy surrounding the honoraria saga and the divorce vote in parliament, in which Gonzi ended up voting in a way which contradicted the will of the electorate.
Although Gonzi has backtracked on the honoraria issue by restoring ministers' pay to pre-2008 levels, public trust was already dented by the secrecy in which the salary revision was conducted, which was further aggravated by the timing of a pay increase benefiting Gonzi and his Ministers in a time of crisis.
The divorce issue was another self-inflicted quandary, since it was the PN leader who first proposed a referendum to resolve the issue, only to refuse to respect its outcome when he personally voted on the bill in parliament.
Moreover, Gonzi's arithmetic calculus, between saving his conscience and assuring a parliamentary majority for the new divorce bill, left a bitter taste among those who expected him to simply rubberstamp the referendum result.
These self-inflicted mistakes dented Gonzi's ability to give leadership to the country at a time when international circumstances dictate inevitable economic and fiscal hardships.
Moreover Joseph Muscat proved to be a more formidable opponent than many Nationalist pundits had anticipated, emulating the PN's own GonziPN stratagem from the opposition and attracting a motley crew of ex-nationalists on his winning cart.
Faced by the ongoing standoff with Franco Debono, which was not resolved by the one-man contest in the party, Gonzi is experiencing what the Italians refer to as 'logorio del potere' (the attrition of power). As former Italian Prime Minister Gulio Andreotti, power weakens those who don't have it. And by denying Gonzi a viable parliamentary majority, Debono is weakening Gonzi's power without actually bringing him down.
In view of the current impasse which has rendered parliament into talking shop where no votes are taken, Gonzi has three options; either call an election after the Easter recess at the risk of a near certain defeat, wade through the troubled water right up to the end in the hope of regaining the lost trust, or change the ball game by resigning, paving the way for a real contest between viable candidates.
An election after the Easter Recess
Calling an election now is probably the natural conclusion of the unresolved political crisis. This is because despite being confirmed as PN leader, Gonzi has still not proved that he has a working majority in parliament.
Although Franco Debono has toned down his attacks on the Prime Minister, he has not relented on his criticism of key figures in the administration.
In fact, members of the party's strategy group, (composed of the Austin Gatt, Richard Cachia Caruana and Joe Saliba troika) as well as key ministers like Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici are the main targets of Debono's constant attacks.
It is only if Gonzi manages to win votes in parliament that he can convincingly argue that his safe pair of hands are preferable to the uncertainty created by an early election.
Otherwise, one can argue that an election is preferable to Gonzi's attempt to 'normalise the crisis' as Opposition leader Joseph Muscat aptly put it.
Still, politically one can understand the PN's reluctance to go for an election, which the party seems destined to lose. So from a partisan point of view, gaining time seems crucial.
Buying time and hope
But gaining time is not necessarily effective in gaining public sympathy, especially if the government continued to avoid votes in parliament. The problem is compounded by deficit considerations.
The secrecy surrounding the cuts in public expenditure, which have seen the opposition taking the initiative in exposing cuts in social expenditure, is indicative of the current crisis of legitimacy facing the government.
For instead of presenting a programme enshrined in a political vision, the current cost-cutting exercise is coming across as an accounting exercise which flies in the face of the PN's own Christian Democratic credentials and commitment to social justice.
Surely, growing deficits were an essential part of the unwritten social pact, which enabled the previous Nationalist administration to bolster social expenditure without increasing taxation - something which is impossible now due to EU commitments. But following a budget driven by the political and economic logic of boosting middle-class spending, the cuts in public expenditure in the social sector amplify the regressive nature of the government's fiscal policies.
Another risk of procrastinating is that the government will have to address potential minefields like the cohabitation and IVF laws, which could expose lingering conflicts between liberals and conservatives.
One advantage of gaining time is that this will give the government a greater chance to complete its infrastructural and embellishment projects in various localities. The completion of these projects would certify Gonzi's reputation as a doer.
But the opening of new parliament might well be a double edged sword, especially when considering lingering doubts about its financing, which seem to fly in the face of budgetary considerations.
Gaining time also gives the government some leg room to reach out to pockets of discontentment in civil society. The latter task has been entrusted to MEP Simon Busuttil, who is lending his face to the PM's "listening campaign".
Even more vital than this would be the list of voters who did not vote in local elections, which is legally available to both major parties, but is more vital to the PN considering the high level of abstention in Nationalist leaning areas.
Ultimately, Gonzi can bank on his track record as a comeback kid who already defied predictions by winning the 2008 election. Surely, tenacity in the face of adversity has always been Gonzi's best quality. Polls still show Gonzi being more popular than his party. Neither are his abilities as a campaigner to be underestimated. But the more time passes the greater the risk that Gonzi will be overtaken by events and remains at the mercy of a restless backbench. This could increase the temptation for a September 2012 election rather than a March 2013 election.
Removing the albatross
One lingering but taboo option is a change in the PN's leadership before the next election, with Gonzi retaining the office of Prime Minister until the election and a designate leader leading the party in the next election.
This would either require a change of heart by Gonzi in the interests of his party, or the party rising above its own leader to remove the albatross around its neck - a prospect which is very unlikely after the confirmation of Gonzi as PN leader last month.
The risks of such a choice are obvious. It could fatally expose further divisions in the party a few months before a general election.
Restoring unity after a divisive contest would require the kind of discipline and loyalty shown by Guido de Marco after losing to Eddie Fenech Adami in 1977.
Moreover worthy candidates would be wary of taking on the leadership before a probable electoral defeat. Logically, such candidates would prefer a contest held after an electoral defeat for their party. This would give a new leader the chance of working his way to power from a party renewed and cleansed in the purgatory of opposition.
International precedents also seem to militate against such an option. In Spain, the Socialist Party was annihilated in the polls after José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero resigned as party leader a year before the country went to the polls.
One major problem for the Spanish socialist was that only one candidate - the uncharismatic Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba - was willing to take the plunge. The party ended up suffering its worse defeat in history.
Another factor worth considering is that a change of leader could be interpreted by the electorate as a cowardly act by Gonzi, something which would deeply offend his sense of pride and honour.
Gonzi is probably still banking on the electorate rewarding him for his stewardship of the economy in difficult times, and resigning now would rob him of this chance.
It is also doubtful whether the troika leading the PN strategy group would be willing to shed the leader who guarantees their continued influence on government business.
In more normal circumstances, the risks militate against a change of leader on the eve of an election. But the option could be tempting if party strategists come to the conclusion that defeat with Gonzi at the helm is certain.
Some might also be tempted to pilot the process of change now, rather than risk the election of an outsider to the current networks after the election.
In fact, the only guarantee against a piloted change would be a "primary" in which the vote is taken among rank and file members rather than councillors.
Thinking the unthinkable could be the last resort of those who either genuinely believe that a Labour victory would be apocalyptic for the nation, or who stand to lose personally from a change in the networks of power which would leave them completely out of the game.
By changing its leader, the party would bank on its ability to champion change from within and to thwart Labour's strategy, which has been entirely focused on attacking GonziPN and the image of Gonzi clinging to power. A new leader could also be able to win back categories of voters turned off by Gonzi, but still ambivalent towards the prospect of a Labour government.
The reasoning behind such a change would be that since Gonzi's trust rating has been irremediably damaged, only a new presidential figure can win against Joseph Muscat.
An alternative to this strategy would be an attempt to project the PN as a collegial party, still led by Gonzi but which is represented by a plurality of viable successors who are able to work together for a common goal.
By doing so, the party would amplify the difference between Muscat's copycat version of GonziPN and a party with a solid programme, following a process of discussion and coalition building in society at large.
What militates against this option are lingering tensions between the party's liberal and conservative wings as well as the disenchantment of the party's more socially-minded Christian Democratic element.
Reconciling all these differences on the eve of an election after a long period during which the party was sidelined will be far from easy, especially in the absence of formidable intellectuals like Fr Peter Serracino Inglott.
It is also doubtful whether one can defy the dangerous drift towards American style presidentialism - even if this could bode even more instability in the future as both parties degenerate in to loose aggregations around powerful leaders who still depend on the loyalty of individual MPs.
In the circumstances, swimming against the current could well be an investment in the future, especially if Muscat fails in translating a personal victory in to a durable political hegemony.
What is certain is that the Nationalist Party cannot afford not to think out of the box if it wants to avoid a humiliating defeat.
But ultimately, the party must come up with very good answers to convince voters that we are not simply assisting a natural conclusion of a cycle which started in a distant 1987.
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...