Democracy he wrote | Peter Paul Busuttil

After serving 18 years as Safi’s mayor, PN icon Peter Paul Busuttil will formally hand over the ‘hammer’ to newly-elected Labour mayor Francis Callus this week, and says that he holds “no regrets” on his defeat at the polls, promising his full cooperation as minority leader

Former Safi mayor Peter Paul Busuttil
Former Safi mayor Peter Paul Busuttil

"Are you OK?" was the direct question posed to him over the phone by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi early morning on Sunday 11 March, the day after Nationalist party icon Peter Paul Busuttil was voted out of office as mayor of Safi.

The fact that the Prime Minister posed that question to Busuttil, was telling of the tension that overcame the PN leadership on that fateful morning, which later in the day also faced the loss of the St. Paul's Bay mayorship, and a humiliating showing at the polls across the nation.

On the other end of the phone, a seemingly tranquil Peter Paul Busuttil told his party leader that considering everything, he was "fine", and that Labour got what it was after - the small, tranquil and often forgotten village of Safi.

There was nothing more to add in that brief telephone conversation, except for one thing, which seemingly surprised Gonzi.

Peter Paul Busuttil declared himself "pleased" at the news that the mayorship will be handed over to Francis Callus, who until last week was Labour's  minority leader in the five-man council.

Having knowledge of this phone conversation, I called on Peter Paul Busuttil in Safi and found him at the council offices.

"You see, I'm preparing to give Francis (Ċikku) a full handover," Busuttil tells me, as he shifts papers around his desk.He looked calm and moved around his office as though it was just another day in his 18-year-mayorship.

I admit I was rather surprised to find Busuttil in that state of mind considering the outcome of the electoral result in his village.

Busuttil - the man who endured the trauma of being framed by the police in 1986 by abusively pinning him with Raymond Caruana's heinous political murder - stopped fidgeting for a second and looked me in the eye.

"I saw this result coming, I could feel it...."

He added a startling statement: "but this is the beauty of democracy, today it's me, tomorrow it's somebody else."

I must admit that I was rather surprised at the way he spoke, given that I went to see him on the basis of rumours that were circulating on his "imminent resignation" from the Safi council.

"That is absolute nonsense," he replies, adding that contrary to what some may have been thinking, he was going to stay on and continue to contribute to his locality, not as mayor, but as a councillor.

"I fought for democracy, and I will defend it until I die. It is the people that have spoken, and I will respect their decision to elect another mayor instead of me."

We converse in the same council building he built for his community.

"This is my monument, and I know that the people here understood that I have given my all for them during these past 18 years.

"This is a village which until local councils were introduced had practically nothing, and today we all can boast that Safi - although small in size and perhaps peripheral - has all the amenities, including an ATM, playing fields, gardens and good roads."

But while Peter Paul Busuttil reminisces on his achievements as mayor, I ask him the million dollar question: what in his opinion contributed to his ousting from office and also the bigger picture... the PN's humiliating defeat at the polls across the country.

"Regarding Safi, I could sense that the tables were about to be turned. This village is in fact a Labour-voting locality, and I held the mayorship because I enjoyed many votes from Labourites.

"Local councils are really not about politics, but voting for the right people to do the job for a locality. I have served since the beginning, and this time, things changed because Labour was very aggressive, and did all it could to get its voters to actually vote Labour."

Peter Paul Busuttil explains that Labour leader Joseph Muscat found the time to visit Safi and hold a public dialogue in the village square.

"He repeated to his supporters that this time they must vote Labour, and they listened to him."

He goes on to explain that on voting day, he noted many Labour voters who would usually vote for him, preferred to approach and shake hands with his adversary Francis Callus.

"That was when I was convinced that my time as mayor was over," Busuttil admitted.

But I also point out that a number of Nationalist voters didn't even bother to vote. Did you note a protest vote, which could have perhaps saved a PN majority in Safi?

"It's also true that a number of PN voters didn't vote. They didn't turn up for many reasons, some for apathy, others in protest..."

Why were they protesting?

"Well, there are voters who have been hurt, ignored, or have been denied the right to something, and perhaps the party was not responsive to them..."

I point out that over the past month, and even during his press conference about the local council election result, Prime Minister and PN leader Lawrence Gonzi has harped on about the need to have party grassroots listened to better, and urged his ministers to be "closer" to the people.

Busuttil interrupts me, "isn't he correct?...our ministers seem to be too engaged with their work, and have lost focus on their own constituents, while many who have been denied what is rightfully theirs, have been pushed to the sidelines, ignored and hurt.

"We need to strengthen and not weaken our voter base, because the PN really doesn't merit rejection by the electorate," he says.

Busuttil doesn't blame the party for not countering Labour's political campaigning in Safi which cost him his mayorship.

"I already told you, politics don't work here, and I believe that should the party have pushed an aggressive campaign, it would have suffocated people and voter absenteeism would have been much higher."

Peter Paul Busuttil speaks highly of his successor who will officially take his oath of office next Tuesday.

"Francis Callus is a good friend, he is a hard worker, and I am more than sure that he will be a good mayor for Safi. I have promised him my full commitment as a councillor, because I know that he too holds the village interests at heart and is not blinded by partisan politics."

He adds that he will give a formal and full hand-over to Callus earlier than was anticipated, in a bid for him to be in the know of a series of council matters before he takes his oath, and receives the insignia and hammer.

"I will be leaving some €233,000 in the council's accounts, which have been saved for two important projects in Safi, namely an old people's home and a child care centre," he says, adding that the land for these two projects has already been identified, and in partnership with the private sector, these important projects will be started and finished.

According to Busuttil, his outgoing council is satisfied to have completed the whole programme and even more.

Back to national politics, Peter Paul Busuttil expresses himself as confident that the PN can win the next general election, despite the setbacks suffered during this legislature.

"Everything appears to be against the PN in government, your paper even suggested a poll putting it some 14 points behind Labour, but in an election everything is possible, and I surely don't rule out the PN gaining ground and even winning," he says.

"It won't be easy, but if the party gets its act together and focuses on what the people are saying, then I believe that we can succeed in yet another electoral victory."

Peter Paul Busuttil is rather defensive of the party leadership, and insists that they have done all they could "under the circumstances" to keep the PN afloat amid a string of events that have weighed heavily on its governance.

Is he alluding to Franco Debono? And what about the petition that called for the maverick MP's resignation? It is common knowledge that the petition started in Safi, which falls within Debono's constituency.

Busuttil immediately raises his guard, and insists, "I have nothing to say about Franco Debono. I don't want to upset anybody unnecessarily, and I surely don't have the authority from the party to speak about Debono."

He salutes me with a promise, that he "will be around" and explains however, that he will not be found at the council offices during the morning anymore, but will be returning to his gardening hobby.

"I have a small patch of land where I grow some vegetables and some flowers just for my family's consumption. I am 68 years-old now, and I believe that it is high time for me to focus more on my family, and perhaps take my wife, who for the past 18 years was also my driving force, to Gozo for some merited rest."

"I have a small patch of land where I grow some vegetables and some flowers just for my family's consumption. ...... this is rich considering he sold a couple of patches in ODZ for villas with swimming pools. I have to agree, makes one's heart really bleed.Whatever he says, he has to stay on the council like it or not, that is what gonzipn dictates.
Makes my heart bleed........