From wishful thinking to hard facts

I wonder whether the polls at the end of this week will reveal any dramatic change in the state of play.

The Nationalist Party has always used its week-long activities to mark the Independence Day anniversary as a fillip for its supporters after the summer lull. For this, it has to thank Dom Mintoff, who did his utmost to make the country dismiss what happened on 21 September 1964 as a non-event. As a result of the PN's reaction, the opposite of what Mintoff wanted has been established as the norm.

Mintoff's erroneous approach to Independence Day is still the attitude of 'Old Labour' as can be seen from the remark made by Labour veteran Joseph Debono Grech who said that 'Independence' is theirs (meaning the PN's) as if the Labour party will not dirty its hands with something achieved by the PN. Except for this stupid slip, this year Muscat seems to have controlled 'Old Labour' on this issue.

The rumour that in his speech in the traditional PN mass meeting on September 20, Lawrence Gonzi intended to announce his imminent resignation or the time when he will be calling it a day, had been doing the rounds for quite some time. It became stronger as the day approached, until Gonzi himself felt he had to quash it last Wednesday. I never believed it, as it would have been so out of character for Gonzi to do such a thing at this juncture. It was simply a piece of wishful thinking on the part of genuine PN supporters who feel that such a move on Gonzi's part would ensure a PN victory in the general election.

Instead, Gonzi delivered a speech full of rhetoric, a lot of glossing over and some wishful thinking on his part!

Wishful thinking is one thing - hard facts are quite another!

Moreover, this year the Labour Party has devised a clever move: the holding of what they termed as a 'congress' in the same days that the PN was holding its Independence anniversary activities. The congress was open to everybody, and what's more interesting is that several persons were invited to give keynote speeches on preselected themes with Joseph Muscat rounding up the 'discussion'.

The persons who were invited to deliver these speeches are serious people - most of them noted professionals in their field - and the list of these people did give the impression that the Labour cause is being motivated by an earnest desire to see the country beginning a new stage of its political history. It's a pity that the sessions ended with a call for a show of hands denoting approval of the 'agreed' way of doing things - a silly ruse that belied a lack of seriousness, in contrast with the whole proceedings.

As a result, the Labour Party shared the attention of the media with the PN, when usually the media during this week is monopolised by the PN activities. The 'congress' will be wound up with a Labour Mass meeting to be held after that of the PN last Thursday evening. Joseph Muscat will be speaking with the added advantage of knowing what the Prime Minister had already said in the PN mass meeting.

Labour has the advantage of speaking from the opposition and can pontificate on what should be done, while the PN cannot do this without risking provoking questions on why what it is proposing has not yet been done and why certain problems persist.

While Joseph Muscat is a winning card for Labour, Lawrence Gonzi seems to be perceived as already past his 'use by' date - even when Gonzi makes good valid points and Muscat makes frivolous ones. The PN seems to be at a loss about this situation and is unable to do anything but push Lawrence Gonzi to the front, expecting everybody to follow.

Another positive for Labour is that the PN had no speakers of note during the week-long activities and the news from the PN side was what Lawrence Gonzi said each and every day. As a consequence, voters were given the impression that the PN is a one-man show, while the PL gave the opportunity for people to discuss and make suggestions leading to its electoral programme being perceived as going to be based on what the people want. Of course, this is not a true reflection of the state of affairs in the two parties; but in politics the truth always plays second fiddle to perceptions.

Labour has the added advantage of speaking from the opposition and therefore it can pontificate on what should be done, while the PN cannot do this without risking provoking questions on why what it is proposing has not yet been done and why certain problems are still with us.

The Labour propaganda machine can depict a rosy future after a Labour victory, where everybody will co-operate to solve the country's problems; whereas the PN must necessarily emphasise this administration's achievements while smoothing over or ignoring its failures. Labour can afford to campaign in poetry, only to govern in prose if it wins the election, while the PN has to defend the prose with which it has governed.

The PN is aware of this conundrum: witness how Lawrence Gonzi last Tuesday insisted that the PN will renew the country and itself as a party and as a government. Admitting that the party needs renewing is a very intriguing development in the PN's fortunes under Lawrence Gonzi. Perhaps this is why on Thursday the message was somewhat different, with the PN being depicted as an agent of change, rather than in need of renewal.

The power of incumbency may not be of much use when it comes to 'sell' a rosy future through renewal, but it is able to hand out sudden solutions to personal problems that assuage disgruntled voters. Retrieving back these votes will not be enough for the PN that also faces the obstacle of having to face the abstentions of a large number of its traditional voters that do not intend to vote. Persuading these to vote PN once again will prove to be more difficult.

This is why the PN still insists on harking back on the bad old days under diverse Labour governments - negative campaigning at its best. Labour has been campaigning negatively all along as well and it is only now that it has started to give some inkling on the direction of its policies. Muscat's clear assertion that he is adamant not to raise the national minimum wage - as this would burden employers with new costs and increase pressure on workers from their employers - was a slap in the face for many veteran Labourites and must have raised eyebrows in certain Labour circles. But it must have been greeted with relief (and approval) from many other quarters that are still assessing what Muscat stands for.

Incidentally, this was a classic political 'U-turn' from the 'living wage' proposal that Muscat had made after he was elected PL leader, showing that now he is more aware that when in government he has to be pragmatic, rather than idealistic.

The moves played on the Maltese political chessboard this week were quite interesting. I wonder whether the polls at the end of this week will reveal any dramatic change in the state of play.


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