Next election will see generational change

If Leo Brincat’s nomination is approved by the European Council he will be the sixth MP to have departed from the House this legislature. As the heavyweights leave their districts, the election stage is set for some major fights

One change which is inevitable for that year is a generational composition of the Maltese parliament
One change which is inevitable for that year is a generational composition of the Maltese parliament

With a forthcoming general election most likely to be held in 2018, Labour could be set for a second term unless the accident-prone administration hits the self-destruct button.

But, irrespectively of which party wins, the one change which is inevitable for that year is a generational composition of the Maltese parliament. 

The remote possibility of having a third party elect a seat would shake up the system, but it is more likely that changes will only take place within the realms of the Labour and PN parliamentary groups. 

Already this legislature has seen the departure of five MPs, with Leo Brincat’s imminent appointment on the European Court of Auditors expected to lead to the sixth by-election in just over three years.

The departure of former PN leader Lawrence Gonzi, former health minister Joe Cassar and Albert Fenech on the PN’s side and the promotions given to Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Karmenu Vella and now Leo Brincat from within Labour’s ranks will lead to a generational change on both sides of the political divide, especially if a number of veteran MPs call it a day. 

David Thake: the PN’s radio jock and tormentor of Labourites wants to be an MP
David Thake: the PN’s radio jock and tormentor of Labourites wants to be an MP

To a certain extent, the 2013 election brought a minor generational change with 23 candidates elected for the first time ever. However, both parties retained a number of political heavyweights who have served as MPs in multiple legislatures. 

The end of the old guard? 

Since winning the 2013 election, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has kicked upstairs three veteran MPs, namely Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Karmenu Vella and Leo Brincat, who together with foreign minister George Vella, education minister Evarist Bartolo and the longest-serving MP Joe Debono Grech formed the party’s old guard.

Vella, first elected in 1978, and 77-year-old Debono Grech, who has been elected in every election since 1966, have already indicated that they will not seek re-election, while Bartolo’s intentions are not yet clear.

Question marks might hinge on deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech – who earlier this year underwent major surgery – and Labour whip Godfrey Farrugia, the latter having resigned from health minister and also endured the departure of his partner Marlene Farrugia, from the Labour backbench.

While Grech’s decision hinges on his health, Farrugia finds himself in an uncomfortable position given that his partner Marlene Farrugia – who was also elected on the Labour ticket – quit the party while hanging on to her seat and created a new political formation, Partit Demokratiku. 

The exit of the old guard will not only free up space for new faces, but internal opposition to Muscat’s pro-business and neoliberal policies will all but fade away.  

Apart from opening vacancies for new MPs, these exits will lead to a lot of internal jostling between current MPs who will seek to strengthen their footholds in their electoral districts, and possibly attempt to fill in the vacuums left behind by heavyweights in other districts. 

Unlike the PN, Labour has yet to officially announce its newly approved candidates but a number of individuals have already started campaigning at a local level.  

Can Busuttil stamp his mark on PN?

On the other hand, PN leader Simon Busuttil could use the next election to stamp his mark on the party.

Upon taking over as PN leader following the calamitous 2013 defeat, Busuttil inherited a parliamentary group made up of political heavyweights who embodied the previous PN administration that was brutally voted out and new inexperienced MPs.

A number of the heavyweights, including George Pullicino and Francis Zammit Dimech – who Busuttil already side-lined by giving them minor roles within the shadow Cabinet – are facing pressures to make way for new blood; others such as Charlò Bonnici have already declared that they will not seek re-election. 

However, PN heavyweights, including former finance minister Tonio Fenech, who is now a spokesperson on foreign policy, and Giovanna Debono who resigned from the party but not from parliament in the works-for-votes scandal in Gozo, could tempt their fate and seek to reinvent themselves.

This worked out well for a number of Labour MPs who served under Dom Mintoff in the 1970s and 1980s and still went on to form part of Muscat’s Cabinet. Prior to the scandal involving her husband, Debono – who served as Gozo minister for 15 years – was set to call it a day but it is now thought that she is mulling re-election to redeem herself electorally.

Busuttil also named a number of MEPs as shadow ministers, which means they could try their luck in national elections and swap their seat in Brussels with a new one in Valletta.

But as shown by MEP David Casa’s dismal performance in the last general election, there’s no guarantee that Roberta Metsola and Therese Commodini Cachia will have an easy route to the Renzo Piano parliament in the Maltese capital.

Owen Bonnici and Franco Debono: in the remote possibility that Labour extends Debono an invitation to run for MP, it would provoke a bitter rivalry with Bonnici
Owen Bonnici and Franco Debono: in the remote possibility that Labour extends Debono an invitation to run for MP, it would provoke a bitter rivalry with Bonnici

The PN has already approved 57 candidates, including former MPs and candidates and new faces. The list includes radio presenter David Thake and former MPs Edwin Vassallo and Michael Axiak. The new candidates, or at least some of them, are being given a lot of exposure by the party by having them address press conferences together with MPs. 

New and old battlegrounds 

When it comes to winning a seat in parliament, a candidate’s worst enemy isn’t the opposing party but colleagues contesting on the same ticket and the next election could see the birth of new rivalries.

The exit of heavyweights and veterans will lead to hotly contested battles in a number of electoral districts and current MPs and new candidates have already set their eyes on filling in the available seats. 

In the first electoral district (Valletta-Floriana-Hamrun) Louis Grech’s 5,600 votes will probably be up for grabs, and the ambitious and young Labour candidate Aaron Farrugia is among the candidates vying for the deputy Prime Minister’s seat.

Another tantalising contest is set to be fought out in the fifth electoral district (Birzebbugia-Marsaxlokk-Qrendi-Zurrieq-Mqabba).

With some 10,000 Labour votes up for grabs following the exit of Karmenu Farrugia and Marlene Farrugia, this leaves ample room for a hotly contested battle.

Aaron Farrugia: his ‘new era’ slogan reflects his ambitious political will
Aaron Farrugia: his ‘new era’ slogan reflects his ambitious political will

Justice minister Owen Bonnici, who was elected from the third district (Zejtun-Marsaskala) is thought to have set his eyes on a dual constituency that will include the fifth district. And former Nationalist MP Franco Debono has also publicly declared he wants to contest the district on Labour’s ticket.

After being appointed Law Commissioner by the Labour administration, Debono openly criticised the current government and Owen Bonnici’s justice reform.  But now Debono, who effectively brought the former PN government down by breaking ranks in December 2013, is openly seeking an invitation from Muscat and has said: “I have street-leaders and local councillors from the fifth district calling me on the phone, saying they would back me if I had to run.”

Other gruelling contests are expected to take place in the ninth (Msida-San Gwann-Ta’ Xbiex-Swieqi) and tenth (Sliema-St Julian’s-Gzira-Pembroke) districts. 

With Leo Brincat's votes up for grabs, his successor at the environment ministry Jose Herrera and tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis are expected to contest the ninth district, setting a three-horse race alongside competitiveness minister Manuel Mallia in a district which normally sees Labour elect two candidates.

Gozo is also set for a tight battle, with PN leader Simon Busuttil among the candidates who could contest the thirteenth district, especially if Giovanna Debono decides against running, which would also pave the way for former PN secretary-general Chris Said to cement his authority there.

In the red corner, three Labour stalwarts, Anton Refalo, Justyne Caruana and Franco Mercieca are all vying to outperform one another, not only to retain Labour’s slim majority in the crucial district but also to possibly lay claim on the Gozo ministry.

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