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Conflicting opinions on timing of election call

‘He feels a duty to complete his mandate’

Top PN strategists are advising the Prime Minister to postpone the election until after the Budget, despite pressure from some quarters to put an end to the uncertainty caused by rebel MPs.

If Franco Debono wants an early election, he will have to vote for it. Why should the Prime Minister do the job for him?

Rumours are rife within both political parties that an election could be called in the coming week, but sources said Lawrence Gonzi’s advisers are telling him otherwise.

They want parliamentary procedure to take its course on the motions against Transport Minister Austin Gatt, much in the same way as when MPs Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando contributed to the unseating of Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and EU Ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana earlier this year.

This would show Dr Gonzi was treating his Cabinet members equally, and would dismiss claims that he was prepared to tie the vote against Dr Gatt into a confidence vote in the Government.

Crucially, however, this strategy would also allow the Government to present a Budget in November, as planned.

Dr Debono and Dr Pullicino Orlando are more likely to back the Budget with Dr Gatt out of the picture, a scenario which would give Dr Gonzi even more time to call an election.

“Dr Gonzi had already said he wants Austin Gatt to step down and work on the PN’s election campaign,” sources told The Sunday Times, indicating that the Prime Minister might already have a plan to replace the seasoned minister.

“The ball is in Dr Gonzi’s court and he might choose to do otherwise. But considering his past decisions, he has shown himself to be very cool-headed. He feels a duty to complete his mandate.”

Presenting the Budget and getting it approved would be seen by some PN insiders as a feather in Dr Gonzi’s cap, since it would show voters he managed to run the country smoothly till the end of the legislature, despite the crisis in government.

Conversely, if Dr Gonzi were to call the election imminently, it would prove he was unable to serve his full term. The absence of a Budget would also instil doubt in people’s minds about the real state of the economy.

“The Budget will show that the economy was managed excellently, despite all this strife,” sources said.

Ironically, voting down the Budget could put the spotlight on the Labour Opposition, which would be prematurely forced to unveil its economic plans for the country, one top official said.

Going for a November election would also ensure a near-certain landslide defeat for the PN at the polls.

But even though postponing the election until late January or February could give the PN more chance to recoup thousands of lost votes, some party members, including certain key Cabinet members, do not think this strategy is sustainable.

“Dr Gatt would be the third lost Cabinet member. Who will be next?” asked one Cabinet source.

Although the motion against Dr Gatt is similar to the one against Dr Mifsud Bonnici, many Nationalists believe they should be dealt with differently.

With Health Minister Joe Cassar also in Dr Debono’s line of fire, pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to pull the plug now instead of continuing to limp towards the Budget, with ministers potentially falling by the wayside.

“Parliament has been hijacked and so has the national mood. No one is talking about Government’s performance anymore but about when the election is going to be held,” a Cabinet source said, adding that the motions of no confidence were also hampering the Government’s job of passing crucial legislation such as the IVF and cohabitation Bills and the Bill to abolish theatre censorship.

Meanwhile, the business community is feeling the brunt of the instability.

But another Cabinet source ruled out calling an election before the Budget, saying that the Government should not do Dr Debono’s dirty work.

“If Debono wants an early election, he will have to vote for it. Why should the Prime Minister do the job for him?”

Tomorrow, the Speaker is likely to be asked to decide the way forward after the Opposition presented its motions of adjournment.

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