[ANALYSIS] Gonzi – living on borrowed time?

Having accomplished his mission to survive till budget day, has Lawrence Gonzi proven his skills as a master in the art of political survival. Or is he simply living on borrowed time, JAMES DEBONO asks?

Budget time is expected to be a moment of reckoning for Lawrence Gonzi's government.
Budget time is expected to be a moment of reckoning for Lawrence Gonzi's government.

Lawrence Gonzi has succeeded in outfoxing Labour and his rebel backbenchers to ensure an election takes place in 2013, and not before. But will he arrive at this starting line already tired and showing all the signs of attrition which have diluted his authority in the past months?

Gonzi is emerging from a year-long political crisis that was ushered in by Franco Debono's abstention in a no-confidence motion in Austin Gatt back in November 2011. He is 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.

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

Last Monday's ruling by the Speaker effectively gives Gonzi complete control over the agenda of the house through the government's control of the house business committee, and rules out a vote of confidence in Austin Gatt before the budget - an indication that Gonzi will be able to navigate his way to a showdown with Debono in the budget vote.

Gonzi will not have to sacrifice Gatt on the altar of political survival to reach this aim, as he had to with home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and permanent representative to the EU Richard Cachia Caruana. This is because it is extremely unlikely that parliament will get to vote on Debono's no-confidence motion in Gatt before voting on the budget.

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

Irrespective of the outcome of the budget vote, Gonzi would have succeeded in his bid to avoid an election in 2012 even if his government could not survive the budget. 

Even if the government loses the budget vote, set to take place some time in mid-November, Gonzi could opt for a long three-month campaign, interrupted by a Christmas truce, which would see the election taking place at the end of February.

Gonzi has also clearly cornered Debono, giving him no option but to vote against the government in the budget and put an end to the backbencher's game of keeping the government alive while constantly humiliating it in parliament. Losing a vote on the favourable terrain of a positive budget could be better suited to the party's electoral fortunes, than prolonging the agony in parliament.

Gonzi's survival paradox

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 a margin between 10 to 14 per cent, by avoiding an early election Gonzi saved himself and his party from certain defeat.

Yet the delaying tactics have not paid off, with Labour's lead remaining intact for the past year. 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 might be banking on the budget followed by a long campaign, during which he would no longer face the attrition of a fragile parliamentary majority.

Still, it remains unclear whether the PN can afford to play the GonziPN card in the face of Joseph Muscat's presidential style of campaigning. While rebuilding trust in Gonzi could be a daunting task projecting a new designate leader could create acrimony in an already divided party. One alternative which could be considered would be to present a leadership team composed of the party's rising stars: namely Simon Busuttil, Chris Said and Mario De Marco.

Finding a convincing formula on how to present its leadership to the electorate remains one of the PN's most difficult electoral task. Ironically the PN finds itself in the same position Labour was in 2008 when it was wrong-footed by the GonziPN stratagem, which capitalised on Labour's Achilles heel: Alfred Sant's leadership. Yet the PN has the advantage of having had enough time to think of an alternative formula even if there is yet no sign of what form this strategy will take, except for the candidacy of Simon Busuttil in strategic pale-blue districts.

Muscat's confidence paradox

Muscat has excluded calling for a no-confidence vote now to force an election before the budget. Instead Muscat has made it clear that he wants the government to present the budget. In so doing Muscat has dispelled the perception that he is power-hungry or keen on robbing the government of completing the last major task of the legislature. He has also pre-empted criticism that he is willing to sacrifice the country's economic interest by sabotaging the budget. This comes in the wake of a warning by credit-rating agency Fitch that Malta's A-plus rating was in fact based on the assumption that government will pass the budget with no early elections taking place.

Still, why should Muscat give the government more time to present a potentially game-changing budget when Muscat's victory would be sure if an election is held now?

Opinion polls seem to suggest that if an election were to be held now, Labour would win by a huge margin. Toppling the government now would also deprive government of its power of incumbency as well of the chance to present a favourable budget.

Muscat has had no qualms in pushing the government to the brink in January but then failing to win the no-confidence vote. Subsequently the Opposition fielded strategic motions, which won support on the government bench and brought about the resignation of Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Richard Cachia Caruana. Polls have shown that this strategy has not come at any cost in terms of popularity for Labour.

Seen in light of the sequence of events, Muscat's decision to allow the government to present the budget could be more motivated by realpolitk than by any sense of national responsibility.

Muscat's reluctance to push the confidence button suggests that he has already sounded the rebel backbenchers and found out that they are far from eager to vote for an Opposition motion to bring the government down. This suggests that Gonzi's blame-game has paid off, for even after being banned from contesting the election with the PN, Debono does not want to be seen as a Labour stooge who paved the way for Muscat's power-grab. Therefore, lacking any certainty that a no-confidence vote will pass, Muscat preferred to take a safer path and let government have its appointment with destiny in the budget vote.

Surely Muscat cannot take the risk of having egg on his face by losing a vote, which the PN would interpret as an irresponsible move to prevent government from passing the budget. Faced by this prospect, Muscat has intelligently claimed the moral high ground.

But the decision could also suggest that Muscat is wary that if robbed of the chance of presenting the budget in parliament, which would be also scrutinised by the European Commission, the PN would still present the budget to the country as a sort of electoral manifesto.

Although less binding than a document presented in parliament, a manifesto budget would carry no obligation to give a full account of the financial state of the country. By foiling the budget plans, Muscat risks giving the PN a free hand in announcing popular budgetary measures without revealing the country's real fiscal situation.

Still, through his decision Muscat has practically given his 100% assurance that the government will not fall before budget day. He has also given Gonzi the last chance to turn the tables around.

The budget: the ace up Gonzi's sleeve?

Curiously, had the government accepted the Opposition's request for an urgent debate on Franco Debono's motion of no-confidence in 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 actually be banking on Debono voting against the budget. In so doing he could be making two considerations.

A vote by Debono against the budget a few weeks before Christmas could serve as a rallying call for pale-blue voters who could end up blaming Debono for bringing the country to the brink by depriving the country of an approved budget, which could risk the country's credit rating.

If the budget contains positive fiscal incentives targeted at the PN's vote base, Debono may well be blamed for depriving them of these benefits.

Moreover knowing beforehand that the budget would not be approved, the government could be given a carte blanche to propose measures which it would not even be in a position to implement.

Still, this strategy could backfire as voters could well blame the government for pushing the country against the wall, presenting a budget which was inevitably doomed instead of calling an election earlier to give the new government the chance of presenting a real and durable budget.

The fact that government knew beforehand that the budget was doomed could also 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.

When presenting the budget Gonzi will have to address the concerns of discerning voters who appreciate his ability to weather the international storm, but would be disturbed by a pre-electoral bonanza which would contrast with the government's previous appeals for prudence. For this reason, a sober budget with a few electorally targeted measures could be the best the government can do in present circumstances.

Towards a Christmas truce?

One factor which weighs heavily on the fate of the budget and the government, is the proximity to the Christmas season.

Finance minister Tonio Fenech has already hinted that the budget will be presented in mid-November, making Monday 12 November the likely date. Opposition leader Joseph Muscat would then reply to the budget a week later and a vote will be taken two days later on 21 November.

If Franco Debono swallows all his pride and votes for all budget votes, including those in Austin Gatt's and Joe Cassar's ministries, parliament would be adjourned for the Christmas recess and Gonzi may well decide to proceed or immediately dissolve parliament as soon as parliament reconvenes in mid-January. In this way the country would go to the polls in March before the Easter festivities.

But if the government falls in the first budget vote, Gonzi would have to advise the President to dissolve parliament so that the the election campaign would start before Christmas. Still, if the government falls on 21 November, this would mean that the earliest date for an election would be very close to Christmas, possibly Boxing day.

Instead Gonzi may well opt for a full three-month campaign interrupted by a truce during the Christmas period.

This would probably mean an election either in the last week of February or the first week of March, depending on the budget date and whether Debono would immediately shoot down the budget or wait for the vote in Austin Gatt's or Joe Cassar's ministry votes.

While in such a scenario the PN would blame Debono for ruining Christmas and undermining the business community, the latter could well blame the government for stubbornly pressing on with its budget fully knowing that it would not pass instead of pulling the plug before.

An alternative to this would be presenting the budget in October to ensure that the country would still be in time for an early December election. But the only available December date remains Saturday December 1. The next possible date would be December 8, which coincides with the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Although there is a historical precedent for a mid-December election - the 1981 election which was held on 12 December - the only other calendar date available after December 8 is December 15., which would mean the country going to the polls just 10 days before Christmas with the electoral campaign peaking on days traditionally reserved for the Xmas shopping spree. This makes an October budget and a December election very unlikely.

Therefore in the event of the government losing the budget vote, the only way to save Christmas would be to suspend the campaign for a couple of week to resume it in mid-January: a veritable Christmas truce before tempers flare again after the epiphany.


November 2011 Franco Debono abstains in no-confidence vote on Austin Gatt. Gonzi wins vote of confidence.

December 2011 Franco Debono calls for separation of justice and home affairs, threatens to withdraw support for government.

January 2012 Cabinet reshuffle, Chris Said appointed justice minister, Debono hits out as 'network of evil', Labour moves no-confidence vote in government. Labour leads PN by 9 points in MaltaToday polls. Debono abstains, government survives with Speaker's casting vote.

February 2012 Gonzi holds leadership contest with him as sole candidate, wins 96% of PN delegates. MaltaToday polls show Labour leading by 13 points.

March 2012 PN trounced in local elections, MaltaToday poll shows Labour leading by 14 points. Parliament adjourned for four weeks

May 2012 Debono votes for Opposition's no-confidence against minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici who is forced to resign.

June 2012 Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando votes for Opposition's no-confidence motion in Richard Cachia Caruana while fellow backbencher Jesmond Mugliett abstains.

July 2012 Debono votes for Budget Measures Bill, a confidence vote for government. PN bans Pullicino Orlando, Mugliett and Debono from contesting elections. Parliament adjourned to October. Pullicino Orlando breaks off from PN, and Gonzi forms "coalition" government with the independent MP.

September 2012 PN confirms ban on three rebel backbenchers. PL still 12 points ahead in MaltaToday poll.

October 2012 Debono presents motion of no-confidence in Austin Gatt as Opposition presents motion against "privatisation" of car parks. Opposition presents motion to force discussion on both motions. Speaker rules that decision on both motions has to be taken by House Business Committee where government calls the shots.

Who the gods would like to destroy they lend a little time to allow them to sink a deeper hole.
James, il-Gonz's survival skills have served the nation and the PN very badly. Naturally, this was not il-Gonz's advisors reckoning when they laid out this strategy. These 10 months have shown up the PN as a completely divided party spurred only by hate, pique and payback bruising hits. It has shown the party as devoid of any freshness at all. Even the one man leadership race, indicated that the young turks did not want to be associated with il-Gonz. Why? No new potential leader would want association with a enormously huge electoral loss, which the whole PN expect.
Dr Gonzi is not on borrowed time, because Dr Gonzi knows that Dr Franco Debono 'ipacpacc BISS jaf', and this will be his undoing.
James... one question... what value would the budget have, given the situation the Government is in? No one in his right senses would take this budget at face value, and even if it built on 'solid ground' it would still be the last Budget before (or for) the Election, thus making it just a nice shiny carrot to dangle in front of the slobbering masses... It's a non-sequitur to start with..