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[ANALYSIS] Day of reckoning inside PN quarters
Is the Prime Minister looking for a showdown to call JPO’s bluff or is the rebel backbencher provoking the PM to kick him out of the party to make an election inevitable?
11 July 2012, 12:00am
Significantly, the face-off with the rebels will take place after the adjournment of parliament for the summer recess, thus giving Gonzi a comfort zone in which he can control events without putting his one-seat majority at risk until October when parliament reconvenes.
This suggests that the day of reckoning for the three rebels, who defied the party line on two different motions in parliament resulting in the decapitation of former Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonninci and EU ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana, is approaching.
Following Thursday, they will either be expected to toe the line or face further disciplinary measures.
But since the PN has already condemned the three MPs, it remains to be seen what further steps it can take short of expelling them from the party. Since expulsion would be a drastic step that will imperil the stability of the government, next Thursday's showdown risks degenerating in to mudslinging match between the party hawks and Pullicino Orlando who would be attending the meeting.
Instead of a final resolution which reunites the party, the possibility of an escalation without a conclusion risks deepening the internal divisions. And increasing the dose of condemnation risks uniting the three rebel MPs, and reigniting Franco Debono's fuse after a period of relative quiet from the unruly backbencher.
By simply upping the tone of a condemnation issued two weeks ago and threatening the MPs for any future acts of insubordination, the party risks committing another self-inflicted mistake: that of keeping the focus of the nation on the state of disunion in the PN, rather than on things which the Prime Minister wants people to talk about... like jobs, and how the country managed to weather the international economic crisis.
On the other hand it could provide the perfect opportunity for Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, the most unpredictable and non-conciliatory of the three MPs, to further embarrass the government. Moreover if cornered he may even cut the umbical cord which keeps him tied to a government, for which he would not even vote in the next general election (having already declared his intention not to vote or contest).
Moreover such a face-off seems to fly in the face of polls showing the PN trailing 10 to 12 points behind Labour, and pronouncements by the same Prime Minister that he wants to complete the five-year mandate given by the people in 2008.
It is also clear that of the 'gang of three', the most unpredictable and the most feared is Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
On his part Pullicino Orlando also seems to be set on collision course with Lawrence Gonzi, by insisting on his own motion to expel Richard Cachia Caruana over "collusion" with a Labour government between 1996 and 1998.
Tomorrow he intends to further escalate the confrontation by presenting a list of witnesses to substantiate his allegation.
The claim was partly confirmed by Labour Leader Joseph Muscat on Sunday who referred to Cachia Caruana's attempts to curry favour with Labour even if he added that these attempts were not successful.
It is pretty obvious that Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is simply throwing the ball back in the Prime Minister's court, fully knowing that his demand will not be accepted.
This would provide him with an exit strategy to justify his resignation from the parliamentary group, thus denying the government from its majority without actually bringing it down.
Curiously rather than spilling the beans in the media and explain the level of collusion between Labour and RCC, Pullicino Orlando is insisting on turning the executive in some kind of court in which Cachia Caruana will stand as the accused, and where he can dabble as prosecutor.
Pullicino Orlando's willingness to summon witnesses to take the stand in front of a party executive is bizarre, and entire makes the scenario highly improbable.
For it is extremely doubtful that any witness, especially if the list includes Labour officials engaged in the alleged collusion with Cachia Caruana, would accept convocation in front of a party executive.
But putting Cachia Caruana on trial in front of the party's executive is even more improbable for political reasons. For Cachia Caruana has been at the nerve centre of the party for the best part of the last quarter of a century: first as Fenech Adami's personal assistant and than as chief strategist and ambassador for the Gonzi administration. By putting Cachia Caruana under trial JPO is directly questioning the judgement of both Gonzi and Fenech Adami.
Still it is the level of trust Cachia Caruana enjoyed within the party's higher echelons which underlines the seriousness of Pullicino Orlando's accusation that he colluded with the Labour administration. Pullicino Orlando's choice of words is also indicative of the seriousness of the accusation, for collusion is very different from currying favour or ingratiating oneself with an adversary. According to the Oxford dictionary it denotes "secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others."
This places the onus on Pullicino Orlando to prove this accusation irrespective of whether he is offered a platform to do so within his own party.
On the other hand the party could be in a better position to call Pullicino Orlando's bluff by accepting the challenge and calling on the rebel MP to substantiate the allegations he is making in front of its executive. This would not require neither witnesses nor mock trials but a clear statement by Pullicino Orlando. Having been the one to raise the issue, the responsibility to substantiate the allegations, falls upon him and not on the summoned witnesses.
'Rolling stone' Jeffrey?
While his bizarre idea of a 'trial' within the party may well be a diversion to derail any attempt to expel him from the party, it could also suggest that this is exactly what Pullicino Orlando yearns for.
The MP has nothing to lose, having pre-emptively decided not to contest the next election. He could therefore have deliberately embarked on a path of no return, which would ultimately leave his party no other option but to kick him out.
Pullicino Orlando may well be casting himself in the role of victim of a party which refuses to even discuss his motion, thus justifying his withdrawal from the PN's parliamentary group.
The end result of both eventualities, that of being expelled by the party or of JPO expelling himself from it, is that Pullicino Orlando will no longer form part of the PN's parliamentary group.
This would mean that the PN no longer enjoys a majority in parliament; but even in this eventuality Gonzi will not be obliged to call on the President to call for the dissolution of parliament, as he must first have to lose a vote of confidence in the House.
Moreover parliament will not be meeting until October, which is the latest point until which the current stalemate can realistically be expected to hold.
But if the opposition does not call for a vote of confidence - or if it does but Pullicino Orlando votes against it, in keeping with his previous statement that he will keep on supporting government - Gonzi will be able to stay on until the next budget where each vote would count as a confidence vote.
This would throw the ball back in JPO's court. For bringing down the government by hindering the passage of the country's financial lifeline could well be depicted as irresponsible.
But embarking on such a path would only certify the chronic instability of a government on life support. To avoid getting bogged down in instability, Gonzi would have to throw the towel and go for an autumn election. Much will depend on his ability to present a modest but politically effective budget.
If Gonzi is unable to do this, an election in October becomes a more likely option.
But even if JPO does not vote Gonzi out of office, the country would effectively become hostage to a man who now represents nobody but himself- a veritable coalition between the Nationalist Party and one single person who does not even intend to vote in the next election, a veritable reminder that the two party system is not immune to instability and blackmail.
Next chess moves
Still, while JPO's strategy could be that of forcing his own party to the brink of kicking him out before the summer recess, Gonzi's counter strategy could be that of appearing tough without pushing things to the brink in yet another bid to delay the inevitable.
If this is the case, next Thursday's meeting will not resolve the current crisis, leaving the window open for compromise, or at least for a truce, which buys Gonzi some more time at least until the summer recess.
It was a strategy, which worked to some extent with Franco Debono, but will it work with Pullicino Orlando? The latter has already shown his unscrupulous brinkmanship by misleading Cachia Caruana into believing that he would not vote for his removal. It is also extremely unlikely that Labour would have presented the killer motion, without having any inkling of his vote.
Much depends on Pullicino Orlando's intentions. In the event that he does not want to go in history as the PN deputy who brought his own party's government down, Gonzi still has lee-way to avoid an early election. If Pullicino Orlando has no such hang-ups, the country seems to be heading for an autumn election.
Ultimately Gonzi's frustration could be that his fate is no longer is his own hands. It now lies in the hands of an MP who seems to be on a rampage. Luckily for the PM, the summer recess gives him the time he needs to decide on when to go for an election before he has to face "the gang of 3" in parliament after October.
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...