Five reasons Franco Debono is not the direct threat to Muscat he was to Gonzi before 2013

Out of parliament for the past five years, Franco Debono still manages to grab the headlines. But how much political currency does the political maverick hold five years after bringing down the Gonzi government?

Franco Debono’s only political value at present stems from his own personal story
Franco Debono’s only political value at present stems from his own personal story

Before 2013, attempts to belittle Nationalist MP Franco Debono had failed to diminish his political persona, which culminated in the colourful parry and skewering of TV host Lou Bondì in December 2012.

It turns out that people actually respected Debono, a major factor for his survival – even MaltaToday polls showed he was trusted by 30-40% of both PN and Labour voters after abstaining on the no confidence votes against transport minister Austin Gatt and the Gonzi administrations.

Five years down the line, now as Commissioner of Laws and at odds with Joseph Muscat’s Labour but also mistrusted by a segment of PN voters, how much political currency does Franco Debono has?

Man of the hour: Franco Debono the MP
Man of the hour: Franco Debono the MP

1. Debono is no longer an MP, and Muscat has an unassailable majority: Debono is not a direct threat

Debono was politically relevant because he was elected in a parliament where Lawrence Gonzi held just a one-seat majority: Gonzi could not govern without his support. So any word uttered by Debono sent shivers down the spine of the PN establishment.

As early as 2009, Gonzi was forced to placate Debono – with wife Kate Gonzi in tow – when the errant MP went AWOL. Alternating between fury and restraint, Debono prolonged the government’s life to December 2012 when he finally brought it down in the Budget vote, keeping it on life support, costing a minister his seat, abstaining on confidence motions that weakened Gonzi.

But Debono does not have this power with Muscat. Just charisma and his straight-talker influence voters who have doubts on Labour. It’s a quality which the PN has failed to capitalise on to resonate with switchers.

2. After 2008, Debono captured the mood of a country in flux: today’s surveys show there is no mood for change in government

Debono represented the anger of former PN voters who felt excluded from their party. His personal narrative was apposite: a bright young lawyer who made it parliament by beating heavyweight Louis Galea, in the hope of injecting new energy, only to be excluded by an “evil clique.”

Recently Debono predicted the end of Muscat’s ‘movement’, having been taken over by a restricted circle bent on purging former Nationalists like him. So far surveys show very little signs of visible discontentment on Labour’s side. Although Debono may well be reading the first signs of tension in Labour’s big tent, his assault may have been premature.

Bright young Turk... at Lawrence Gonzi's side
Bright young Turk... at Lawrence Gonzi's side

3. In 2013, Debono was a role model for switchers. But he has burned too many bridges on the other side of the Rubicon

The Opposition needs credible role models to cultivate a new generation of switchers, but it has had very few individuals from outside its ranks; brining no sizeable following with them. Even their Democratic Party alliance cost them two parliamentary seats without any additional votes over their 2013 tally.

Unlike the “angry” Salvu Mallia, Debono may be more charming, yet he has also burnt too many bridges in the PN to be trusted: people like present-day MPs Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, removed from office thanks to Debono’s vote; or key Delia ally Herman Schiavone, with whom he repeatedly clashed.

Carmel Mifsud Bonnici... get Franco back? No way
Carmel Mifsud Bonnici... get Franco back? No way

And what will the PN do with Debono’s greater ambitions, perhaps even hoping to attempt a leadership bid in future? It’s a prospect that sends shivers down the spines of those who remember the Gonzi days.

Debono might be testing the waters for an independent candidature for MEP as well – although even this would risk uniting the parties against him, and thwarting his far more grandiose ambitions.

Austin Gatt, a bête noire of Franco Debono in 2011
Austin Gatt, a bête noire of Franco Debono in 2011

4. Debono picks on Egrant, an issue that backfired on the PN, after five years of silence on Panamagate

Debono was vociferous on justice reform, transport issues, and the use of heavy fuel oil at Delimara, confronting the least popular minister before 2013 – Austin Gatt – and finally turning to Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Lawrence Gonzi, both at the nadir of popularity.

Today Muscat is at the peak of his popularity, so when Debono hits out at him on the Egrant issue, it’s a position that contrasts his past statements on Facebook. Debono may have said that a “political argument” can be made without making a statement of fact that places the onus of proving Muscat is not the owner of the secret Panama company Egrant on those who make the accusation. “It is in Muscat’s interest that an investigation is done to if he wants to the shadow cast on him removed,” he said.

But Debono’s attack comes after years of silence on the Panama Papers, during which he served the Labour administration as Commissioner of Laws; and without making any mention of 17 Black, on which the evidence abounds.

So who did Muscat become the “most corrupt politician Malta has ever seen” after Debono’s five years of silence? The only context to his rant is a decision by Muscat to transfer his assumed presidency of the constitutional convention, to outgoing President of the Republic Marie Louise Coleiro Preca; further compounded by Muscat’s lawyer Pawlu Lia making Debono’s life hard inside an appeal he filed to a €700 fine for contempt in the Commission for the Administrtaion of Justice. Debono has been very transparent in linking his clash with Lia to his criticism of Muscat, but this fuels the perception that Debono is driven by grudges.

Driven by grudges? Franco Debono says he is being pushed out of the Constitutional convention
Driven by grudges? Franco Debono says he is being pushed out of the Constitutional convention

5. Criticism of Debono by Labour supporters risks vindicating previous criticism by PN supporters, damaging the Debono brand

Ironically Debono finds himself being accused by Labour supporters of the same things he was accused of by PN supporters in 2013, namely that he is not a team player, that he is egocentric and driven by personal ambition. This risks damaging Debono’s brand with reinforced perceptions. In 2013 Labour voters were more than willing to rush to his rescue; PN voters may be less willing to do so now.

But Labour supporters now must be careful not to go overboard in attempts to belittle Debono. He has shown an uncanny ability to emerge stronger from such attacks, indeed having a personality that thrives on conflict. Undoubtedly Debono knows well enough that his Egrant rant would set Labour supporters and social media on fire, allowing him to even find himself back in the good graces of some PN supporters.

What remains a mystery is Debono’s ultimate destination. He leaves everyone guessing. The question: is what options does he have left?

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