[ANALYSIS] Lawrence Gonzi’s last cards

Two bombshells from Lawrence Gonzi: the budget and the election of a new deputy leader by the start of December, days before the festive season. Here is the PN’s last-ditch attempt to recover lost support.

2012's budget is a time for strategy for Lawrence Gonzi.
2012's budget is a time for strategy for Lawrence Gonzi.

John Dalli's dramatic resignation and the nomination of Tonio Borg as EU commissioner has not only provided Gonzi with the golden opportunity of paving the way for the election of a more charismatic and popular deputy leader but has also enabled the government to delay the budget further towards the end of November, completely excluding an election before the end of 2012.

On Sunday Gonzi declared that the budget will only be presented after the process of nominating Tonio Borg to the European Commission is over and a new MP has replaced him in the House of Representatives.

If Tonio Borg's nomination is not derailed by a negative vote in the European parliament, which should take place by 22 November, the earliest date for the casual election to replace Tonio Borg in the Maltese Parliament will be November 30.

This is a clear indication that the budget will take place either on Monday November 26 or Wednesday November 28.   A vote will be taken the following week, possibly on Monday December 3.  This would ensure that the whole process is completed before the start of the Xmas season on December 8.  A postponement of the budget to the following week could mean that the decisive vote would be taken on the eve of the December 13 public holiday.  This would mean that the political crisis would weigh heavily on retail sales on both public holidays.

This suggests that there is a strong probability that the election of the new deputy leader (between November 29 and December 2) will take place between the presentation of the budget and the crucial vote on the budget, a money bill on which the government could lose its majority.  It also means that if the government does fall, the trauma will be felt just a few days before the December 8 feast, which inaugurates the Christmas season.

Yet there are still 3 questions, which remain unanswered; Will Tonio Borg be approved by the European Parliament?  Will more than one candidate stand for the deputy leader election?  And will Franco Debono deal the government the final blow in the budget? 

The Tonio Borg factor

Apart from the timing of his approval which could impact on the date of the budget, as the government cannot afford being caught wrong footed by having a missing MP on its side, there is also a possibility that Borg is not accepted by MEPs.

If Tonio Borg does not get the approval of a majority of MEPs after what is expected to be a difficult and tough grilling, he will have no need to vacate his seat in the Maltese parliament while Gonzi will have to go through the trouble of finding a more suitable candidate for the post while at the same time facing the risk of seeing the government fall down in the budget vote before his nominee is even approved.  This is because the budget cannot be further delayed beyond the first week of December, as it would coincide with the Christmas celebrations.

The Simon Busuttil factor

The PN's strategy seems to be banking on the simultaneous feel good factor generated by the presentation of a positive budget accompanied with the election of new charismatic deputy leader who would prop the embattled Gonzi. Opinion polls indicate that Simon Busuttil is widely seen as the person who is the best position to reverse the party's fortunes.  Although the appointment is widely seen as a poisoned chalice for Busuttil as he risks taking the blame for a possible defeat while other contenders bid their time, Busuttil cannot afford to abandon the party in its moment of need.  By turning down the opportunity knocking on his door, Busuttil risks being seen as an opportunist bidding for a more favourable time instead of accepting his appointment with destiny. In the event that Busuttil accepts the challenge, the question remains whether he will be facing a contest or not. While a contest could result in bad blood running on the eve of an election in the absence of a contest there is also a risk that the contest will be ridiculed as a one-man race.  One way to avoid this would Busuttil is contested by an outsider with no real chance of winning while Ministers like Mario De Marco and Chris Said justify their absence citing the need to remain focused on their Ministerial portfolios on the eve of the budget-a reason already given by Jason Azzopardi.

The Franco Debono factor

Ultimately the success of the whole strategy seems to hinge on Debono sticking to his commitment to vote against the budget if Austin Gatt remains minister. For in that case the government would fall just a few days after elected a popular deputy leader while presenting a positive budget.  In this way the party could be hoping in a wave of sympathy for the new leadership tandem.

Still the timing of events with the election of a new deputy leader and a vote which risks spoiling retailers' Christmas seems also bent to put pressure on Debono to change his mind and vote for government.  For who else but Debono would be blamed for stealing Christmas and leaving the country budget-less and thus more exposed to negative ratings by credit agencies?  Moreover the election of a new deputy leader could instil in Debono hope of the party lifting the ban on his candidature.

But if Debono does have a change of heart and the budget gets approved, the government risks an anti climax, losing the opportunity of unleashing its third weapon; the sympathy vote in the face of Debono's vote against the budget and starting the campaign with a big bang.

Still Gonzi may also be aware of the limits of the sympathy strategy for back in 1998 Sant failed to capitalise on the initial sympathy he had after being brought down by Mintoff. 

If Debono comes back in line, Gonzi would than have to decide whether to advice the President to dissolve parliament after the Christmas recess as he did back in 2008 and still bank on the feel good factor brought by the budget and the new deputy leader or to continue plodding on, banking on the completion of the new parliament and other projects before an election is called after Easter.

Two possible timelines

26 November - Budget presented to parliament

2 December - New PN Deputy leader elected

5 December - Budget vote taken determining whether government survives or not

8 December - Feast of the Immaculate Conception


2 December - New deputy leader elected

3 December - budget presented to parliament

8 December -  Feast of the Immaculate Conception

12 December - Budget vote taken determining whether government survives or not

13 December - Republic Day

Democracy reduced to a game, what a disgrace.
This prime minister has a lot to answer for. This will be the second consecutive Xmas of great political uncertainty. The local business community cannot take any further shocks. We now live in a semblance of democracy and Dr. Gonzi will be remembered for the disaster he is leaving behind him. These people must understand that they will be held accountable for what they are doing to our country. Their actions are jeopardising not only our future but also that of our children. People need to speak out and stand up to be counted.
Absolutely no consideration at all for the long suffering Maltese citizen and economy. Do not get me wrong, but had it not been for the troubles in the north of Africa, even tourism would be on its knees.
Luke Camilleri
Last cards.... what's he playing at "solitaire poker - calling somebody's bluff ?
Luke Camilleri
Last cards.... what's he playing at "solitaire poker - calling somebody's bluff ?