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The Nationalists’ deputy leadership ‘race’

The Nationalist Party may be about to misjudge another political situation as it sets off on its search for a new deputy leader this week. For all its competence in handling economic matters, it has had a habit of missing the blatantly obvious when it comes to being seen to do the right thing in the eyes of the wider public.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the choice of Tonio Borg as European Commissioner. Quite the contrary, he is a figure respected within the inter­national community and that gives him an advantage in taking up the Commissioner’s job – provided he is not derailed during the hearings.

However, given that he immediately stepped down as deputy leader of the party – particularly against the context of him retaining his post as foreign minister – questions are bound to arise over the motivations behind the appointment. Was the object to send a good man to Brussels or to create a vacancy within the party?

It could be a bit of both, of course, though the smart money would probably be – and this in no way is a sleight on Dr Borg – on the primary factor being the latter. The party, it seems, has deemed that having a fresh face beside Lawrence Gonzi in time for the election campaign is just what the doctor ordered.

On the face of it there could be some sense to this theory. But there are a number of factors at play at this moment in time which may make it a terribly bad decision.

The most obvious is the proximity of an election which is at most, realistically speaking, just four months away – perhaps even less.

For the ministers who might consider entering such a race, this means they have a portfolio to continue juggling with, results to try and deliver, as well as home visits to perform if they are to enhance their own individual chances of being returned to Parliament in 2013. This is a very tough task, and some would say an unfair one.

More profoundly, however, the move sows seeds of division at a time when the Nationalist Party least needs it.

The party has already been hampered by several disgruntled MPs who have put spokes in the wheels at several opportunities and contributed to a souring of feeling within what was once a united party.

Yet it now risks adding to the list of the disgruntled – a silent though no less significant list – by opening up the deputy leadership at this time.

For two opposed and yet related reasons: firstly, because a competition inevitably brings with it bad blood in the political field where winner takes all; secondly, because if there is no competition – and that is how this deputy leadership vacancy is being viewed – there will be resentment by those who feel they have not been given a fair crack of the whip.

The party cannot try and pretend that internal division will just not manifest itself in this situation. It will, whether the new deputy leader is appointed after a bloodbath or a coronation.

The danger of this happening is not just for the next election – the PN has a job on its hands to win that anyway – but more importantly for the period after that whether it manages to secure an electoral victory or not.

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