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When Gonzi will go

This newspaper's punchy interview with the Prime Minister and leader of the Nationalist Party last Sunday took a rather unexpected turn. Lawrence Gonzi was pressed into reacting to whether he felt threatened in his party and parliamentary group. He was even asked if he would contest the next general election.

The interview was a welcome breeze; no-pussyfooting, gutsy journalism. Nevertheless, most of the answers jerked out of the Prime Minister were as predictable as the rising and setting sun.

Why should Gonzi be threatened? He lost the European Parliament election and massively so, no doubt about that. So what? The drubbing was, if anything, a blessing in disguise. It made the party in office look hurriedly in the mirror to see what the people had been seeing and not liking.

That way, the PN could introspect and set about to mend itself, at least on the surface. That was no more apparent than in the way the - how should one describe him - the usually hyper robust Austin Gatt began beating slowly on his chest, suggesting, nay, admitting, he may have been to blame in being too impatient, not explaining things patiently. Stuff like that.

No one placed the EP result in clearer context than the impressive victor, Labour and opposition leader Joseph Muscat, barely into starting his second year, one step away from the potential room at prime-ministerial top. He gloried in his feat, who wouldn't? Yet he took great care to emphasise that the EP election result was just the beginning.

The end is still quite some distance away. Labour, in fact, won by too wide a margin on the back of abstentions and vote switching. Thereby it reached a great high, flagging the danger that it may have peaked too soon.

His victory must inspire Muscat to stride forward more confidently. Yet, he has wisely shown that he will be careful and take nothing for granted, unlike some Labour guns (still around to shoot their mouth off again) in the early run-up to the 2008 general election.

On his part, Gonzi, away from the public heat and rhetoric, will have put his finger on his party's sores and mulled over how to cure them. There are many of them. They include some internal bleeding, in the form of uppity backbenchers more prepared to criticise openly, albeit guardedly. On the other hand, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong lies at the PN's door. It is they who made a meal out of Dom Mintoff's antics in 1997 and of my open criticism, as a former minister and sitting MP, of the Labour government's continued plodding ahead with removing VAT and keeping Malta out of the EU.

Today, the PL pays the Nationalists in kind; that's how the game is played. Yet, away from the murkiness, what is wrong with a parliamentary party not always singing like the Nabucco choir? Not even Mintoff really meant to drive out his party from office in 1998, let alone the handful of Nationalist MPs who publicly veer half a degree or so away from the government line. None of them will vote against the government, like Mintoff did.

Much less will any of them challenge Gonzi's hold on the party. They will show they want their voice to be heard more. And why not do so? Point remains, though, they have nowhere else to go outside their party. In fact they will insist, as some have done, that through their actions they put their party first and foremost.

It isn't just a case of Gonzi not feeling threatened. He is not that in the least. Come election time, all his merry men and faithful women will be falling over themselves to pull out the vote for their party, just like erstwhile maverick Frank Portelli did in 2008.

Moving on, why should Gonzi not contest the next general election? This legislature is the first he has won, and barely so. He inherited his first stint as leader and Prime Minister because Eddie Fenech Adami felt it was time to move on. No fool he, Fenech Adami left while on the crest of the wave, Malta moving into the EU, his mission accomplished.

Gonzi feels he managed his inheritance well. His trophy is Malta adopting the euro and gulping down a number of reforms. There are more to be made. The Prime Minister will do his utmost to shape the coming four years so that he will go into the next election with his image up front. The Nationalist brand in the 2008 election was GonziPN. In 2013 it will be just Gonzi, in the same manner that the PL's will be just Joseph.

The red bus aside, Gonzi will definitely contest in 2013, and he will be cheered to a man and woman by his troops. The disgruntled among them who will have a sinking feeling that it would take a miracle to beat Muscat and the Labour phalange will be the hardest workers in the campaign.

The election which Gonzi will not contest will be that of 2018. Should he manage to pull it off again in 2013, he'll grow 10 feet tall and probably step down after two years. Should he lose he'll go within one year, allowing his party enough time to settle itself for the wilderness of opposition.

Gonzi and Muscat will be at it hammer and tongs for quite a while yet.

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