[ANALYSIS] Lawrence Gonzi: survivor, or delayer?

Gonzi lost yesterday’s vote but he has accomplished his mission to survive till the end of the year. So has he proved himself a master in the art of political survival or has he simply delayed an inevitable defeat at the polls?

Lawrence Gonzi with his personal assistant Edgar Galea-Curmi.
Lawrence Gonzi with his personal assistant Edgar Galea-Curmi.

Lawrence Gonzi has succeeded in outfoxing Labour and his rebel backbenchers to ensure an election takes place in 2013, and not before.  He has also gained sufficient time to complete a triple chess move which saw his former deputy Tonio Borg replaced by the charismatic Simon Busuttil just a few months before the election, thus finding an alternative formula to GonziPn.

But will this be enough for Gonzi to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

Despite yesterday's predictable defeat in parliament, Gonzi has managed to wade the waters of a year-long political crisis ushered in by Franco Debono's abstention in a no-confidence motion in Austin Gatt back in November 2011. Despite yesterday's vote, he still emerges as the great survivor of Maltese politics.

Unlike Alfred Sant in 1998, who tied a vote on a yacht marina to a confidence vote in his government, he resisted calling Franco Debono's bluff by turning the various votes taken through the year into confidence votes, while surviving actual votes and confidence he called. This came at a huge price, the loss of a minister and a high-ranking ambassador and political ally.

Gonzi's annus horribilis

Banking on Franco Debono's unwillingness to bring the government down after Debono abstained in a government confidence vote presented by the Labour opposition in January, Gonzi managed to navigate his way through explosive parliamentary minefields, successfully surviving till the summer recess.

The second major test for his government after the January vote was the passing of the budget implementation bill, which was approved with Franco Debono's vote in May. But Debono's vote came at a price, as the government had to accept setting a date for the opposition's motion of censure in Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici.

To buy time Gonzi ended up suffering the humiliation of seeing government defeated in two motions of censure presented by the opposition, one voted by Debono and another by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, which saw the political decapitation of Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Malta's permanent representative tothe EU Richard Cachia Caruana.

It was only in the safety of the summer recess, when he faced no risk of a parliamentary revolt, that Gonzi proceeded to show his muscle against the three rebel backbenchers responsible for his parliamentary defeats.

All three were banned from contesting with the party in the next election. Yet this did not prevent Gonzi from further undermining his authority by entering a coalition pact with newly independent MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.

Debono was simply ignored, with Gonzi intent of continuing playing the blame game with Debono based on the latter's reluctance on bringing the government down while doing everything possible to force Gonzi to call an election himself.

To reach this aim after the Summer, Debono embarked on a rampage, presenting a motion of censure in Austin Gatt and threatening to do the same with regards to health minister Joe Cassar.

After the summer

Having survived the Summer, Gonzi's mission was that of surviving till budget day - the next confidence test for his government.

But he wanted to do so without losing another member of his cabinet. He managed to do so thanks to a Speaker's ruling based on anachronistic parliamentary rules, which give the government of the day control of the House Business Committee, which sets the agenda of parliament.

In this way, he was able to rule out a vote of confidence in Austin Gatt before the budget - enabling Gonzi to navigate his way to a showdown with Debono in the budget vote.

Therefore Gonzi did not have to sacrifice Gatt to reach this aim, as he had to do with home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and permanent representative to the EU Richard Cachia Caruana.

Still, the Speaker's own reservation on the fairness of parliament's standing orders spoke volumes of Gonzi's failure to redress Malta's democratic deficit. For ironically, the government managed to survive on borrowed time thanks to standing orders whose fairness has been questioned by Frendo himself, a former minister and PN stalwart.

Subsequently Gonzi cornered Debono, giving him no option but to vote against the government in the budget by refusing Debono's call for Austin Gatt's resignation form cabinet.

Ironically it was Gonzi himself who back in January, had proposed Gatt's departure from cabinet to lead the party's electoral machine. But giving in to Debono's demand at such a late stage would have undermined Gonzi's authority.

Curiously, had the government accepted the Opposition's request for an urgent debate on Franco Debono's motion of no-confidence in Austin Gatt, the government may well have secured Debono's vote in the budget.

For Debono has repeatedly linked his vote on the budget to the permanence of Austin Gatt in the Cabinet.

Still, the loss of another minister would have seriously undermined Gonzi's authority during an electoral campaign, which has already started. It would have also given the impression that Debono can hold the government at ransom, undermining Gonzi's authority at a time when he needs to assert it to galvanise his electorate.

By preferring a showdown with Debono on budget day, Gonzi could well have banked on Debono actually voting against the budget. In so doing he could have made two considerations.

Firstly, a vote by Debono against the budget a few weeks before Christmas serves as a rallying call for pale-blue voters, who could end up blaming Debono for denying them from the benefits contained in the budget.

Secondly, by proceeding to present the budget without submitting to Debono's blackmail, Gonzi has managed to put an end to the backbencher's game of keeping the government alive while constantly humiliating it in parliament. 

The cost of this was losing yesterday's budget vote.  But this was a cost Gonzi was clearly willing to pay.

Mission accomplished?

Despite losing yesterday's vote, Gonzi has succeeded in his bid to avoid an election in 2012.

He can now opt for a long two-month campaign, preceded by a Christmas truce, which would see the election-taking place in March. In this way, despite yesterday's defeat, Gonzi has managed to hold the election at exactly the same time time he held the election in 2008.

Losing a vote on the favourable terrain of a positive budget is clearly better suited to the party's electoral fortunes, than prolonging the agony in parliament. Moreover, by knowing beforehand that the budget would not be approved, the government was given a carte blanche to propose measures which it would not even be in a position to implement.

But the fact that government knew beforehand that the budget was doomed does undermine the credibility of budget measures, which would be taken with a pinch of salt.

Still, Gonzi had little choice but to present the budget. For had he called an election without presenting the budget, he would well have been accused of using Franco Debono's threat not to vote for the budget as an alibi for running away from damning financial figures.

Gonzi's survival paradox

But while Gonzi has managed to avoid certain defeat by winning time, he has not so far managed to recover support for his party during the months he managed to gain.

Throughout the past months Gonzi's plight was reminiscent of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological king cursed by the Gods to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill only to see it fall down each time he reached its top.

For while he has made it to the finishing line of his choice, he still starts with a considerable disadvantage.

Faced with polls showing Labour leading with 10 to 14 points, by avoiding an early election Gonzi saved himself and his party from the jaws of a certain defeat.

Yet the delaying tactics have still not paid off although the latest survey shows the PN closing the gap by 3 points but Labour still enjoying a 9-point lead.

Moreover the gap actually increased from 9 to 14 points between January and March, following a humiliating PN leadership contest in which Gonzi stood as the sole contestant.

Subsequently the PN continued to trail by 12 points. Constant bickering on its parliamentary benches has constantly derailed the PN's campaign.

Therefore events during the past year seem to indicate that buying time does not necessarily result in buying votes.

But Gonzi will now bank on the longest electoral campaign since 1987, during which he will no longer face the attrition of a fragile parliamentary majority. 

He would also be propped up by the charismatic Simon Busuttil whose election has injected a new dose of enthusiasm among PN supporters. 

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What he's done is waste a whole year for this country so that he may try to crawl back some of the difference in votes. We'll now go on a shopping spree for votes. What people honestly deserve as a right will be given to them as a personal favour by the PN. What disgraceful politics! I may not wholly agree with Dr. Franco Debono, but he at least had the guts to stand up to this corruption.
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Oh and Simon Busuttil is everything but charismatic.
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A great survivor would be one who manages 50 years in parliament at least.
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So he won the battle to delay holding the elections until 2013 -- but will lose the war, because there is no way in hell he will ever win the elections!!! ... He will be remembered for his stubborness and as short-sighted, narrow-minded and a bigot!
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Gonzi has wasted a year of parliament and put business and jobs at risk because he put his personal interest beofre that of Malta nad even of the Party itself. It isw for this reason that the PN will b evoted out at the next general election as we want a Prime Minister who really work for the interest of the Nation. Today we realise waht a gentleman Alfred Sant was and I regrett that at that time I did not vote for him
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I'm sorry, But Simon Busittil has not made any impression at all on my voting intentions.
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Gonzi stayed with his hands firmly on the joystick until his plane hit the ground. He did not budge, but it was pilot-error.