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PM throws down the gauntlet

The scene at Tuesday’s mass meeting by the Nationalist Party at the Granaries in Floriana as part of the party’s independence anniversary celebrations. Photo: Jason Borg

The scene at Tuesday’s mass meeting by the Nationalist Party at the Granaries in Floriana as part of the party’s independence anniversary celebrations. Photo: Jason Borg

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is riding high over his handling of the Libyan crisis but was his Independence Day speech too partisan? Christian Peregin speaks to analysts who say election fever has already kicked in.

Dr Gonzi spent the last three years juggling a treacherous one-seat majority and balancing the country’s budget. He was seen to lose his poise over the divorce referendum and his handling of the secretive ministerial pay rises.

There are signs Malta is already in electoral mode and I predict a bruising, divisive campaign ahead

But as the Libyan crisis accelerated, it was a perfect stage on which to choreograph his comeback.

On Tuesday night, he gave a confident speech at the Independence Day celebrations at the Granaries in Floriana, where he nimbly glossed over the country’s looming difficulties and belittled the opposition. He emphasised the government’s achievements and boldly ignored its mistakes.

According to former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon, the government’s “impressive” list of achievements, and jibes at the opposition’s lack of clarity, were a good tonic for the party faithful.

However, Dr Gonzi ignored the electoral problems he is actually facing, talking as if the PN is geared for a tough electoral battle when it has, in fact, never been so out of touch with its grassroots as it is today, according to Mr Falzon.

“Dr Gonzi is not a visionary and just promises more of the same, albeit depicting the same in a very positive way.”

By ignoring the divorce issue and hence the need to make the party more inclusive, he must have disappointed the disgruntled Nationalists who feel abandoned.

Dr Gonzi’s Achilles heel could turn out to be his inability to unify his party, Mr Falzon believes.

However, others go a step further, expecting Dr Gonzi to use a speech on such a national day to unify the country.

Observer and former government adviser Martin Scicluna said the “partisan” and “backbiting” speech was not about unity or pride in the nation.

Mr Scicluna pointed out that some of the country’s achievements were thanks to Malta’s collective effort, not least the humanitarian care given during the Libyan crisis and its economic triumphs.

This was not the speech of a Prime Minister celebrating Malta’s emergence as a sovereign nation but the kind of speech a leader fighting for his electoral survival in a general election might have given, according to Mr Scicluna.

“What a pity that on an important national occasion, one which should bring all Maltese together, the Prime Minister’s speech struck such a divisive note,” he said, describing this as a missed opportunity for statesmanship and lamenting the fact that both leaders find it “depressingly impossible” to rise above the party fray. FormerAlternattiva Demokratika spokesman David Friggieri said this attitude culminated in Dr Gonzi’s forceful and unapologetic description of his “vacuous political adversaries”

“I’m perplexed how this image can ever credibly coexist with the idea of Flimkien Kollox Possibbli (Together everything is possible).”

“There are signs that Malta is already in electoral mode and I predict a bruising, divisive campaign ahead. But perhaps this is what real politics is all about and Flimkien Kollox Possibbli should be taken for what it is: a cute slogan.”

Economist and former Labour candidate Alfred Mifsud agrees that this speech kicked off the long political campaign till the next election.

He said it was a pity that partisan celebrations still taint national holidays – the country should have the maturity to celebrate Independence Day (and the process towards it begun by Mikiel Anton Vassalli) as “our one and only national day”.

Mr Mifsud said it was fair to criticise the Labour Party for taking longer than it should have in condemning the Gaddafi regime but warned that the PN’s pressure for Labour to expose its policies was a “political trap”. Former Labour leader Alfred Sant used to fall into this trap regularly, he said.

“The government itself has not spelt out its policies for the future and they have been in government for nearly 23 years. How are we going to make health care sustainable? How are we going to really reduce our national debt (including that hidden in bank lending against government guarantees)? How are we going to solve the high rate of dropping out of education beyond 18 years? How are we going to increase female participation in the workforce? Should we continue to expose ourselves to bailouts to Greece, or should we, like Slovakia, argue that this burden should be carried by the original members not by the latecomers?

“Optimism is essential but it has to be based on reality,” he said, criticising Dr Gonzi for not tackling the challenges facing the country, such as Malta’s negatively revised economic outlook.

“Moody’s downgrade could be the start of series of downgrades unless we pull our socks up and take measures to improve the growth potential of our economy. This needs brisk and courageous measures which Dr Gonzi gave no inkling of being willing to take on the side of the election.”

Meanwhile, the Labour Party described Dr Gonzi’s speech as a rallying cry for the hardcore supporters, starkly different from Joseph Muscat’s Freedom Day speech where he said “the country’s freedom and independence were intrinsically bound”.

“Joseph Muscat acted in the most prudent of manners by supporting the government unreservedly during the Libya crisis. Labour hoped that this would be the birth of a consensual approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately, there was little Prime Ministerial attitude in GonziPN’s cheap shots,” a party spokesman said.

But while the Labour Party projects itself as unifying, Dr Gonzi knows he needs to expose the differences between his leadership and that of his rival. With confident claims like “the PN was always on the right side of history”, Dr Gonzi was on Tuesday night transmitting the image a leader who won’t embarrass the country internationally the way Labour exponents have been accused of doing in the past. There are two years left to see whether this strategy will work.

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