Notes on a debate
The people who expected the Lawrence Gonzi-Joseph Muscat debate on Xarabank last week to be an Barack Obama-Mitt Romney-like sizzler were in for a letdown. Like much of the over-hyped ‘clashes’ between our top politicians it turned out to be a drab affair with neither politician delivering a knock-out punch or giving us new information.
Despite his current lead in the polls, this lacklustre performance should worry Muscat as much as it should worry Gonzi. Here’s why.
The Prime Minister’s main difficulties in this electoral campaign are related to the GonziPN brand. In a nutshell that refers to a style of leadership with everything revolving round the Prime Minister and the promotion of his personal image as a benevolent, dignified and wise statesman – a safe bet for the nation.
In keeping with the brand guidelines, the Cabinet was pared down and ministers shoved into the background. If any of them underperformed, blame was placed squarely on their shoulders. Positive developments were credited to the Prime Minister’s leadership.
Insofar as strategies go, this was a clever strategy to detract attention from arrogant ministers and to focus on the popular persona of the Prime Minister. It was good while it lasted and until the Prime Minister’s leadership skills were tested and found wanting.
The deep rifts within the Nationalist Party may be due in part to a restless backbench and MPs harbouring personal ambitions, but his cluelessness in dealing with internal revolt has shown him up to be a weak leader.
The whole media myth built around the Prime Minister started coming undone. Once the party’s greatest asset, Gonzi has now become a liability.
The Labour Party has capitalised on this transformation and much of its billboard and social media campaign is focused on the Prime Minister. In the Labour media he is constantly portrayed in a negative light – a sort of bogeyman for Labour voters. Gonzi has been given the Alfred Sant treatment and it has paid dividends for the Labour campaign machine.
However, if Labour’s guns are targeted exclusively against the Prime Minister, removing him from the equation will mean that the PL’s negative campaign will lose its steam and may even peter out completely. Recent developments indicate that something of the sort may be happening.
Once Simon Busuttil is elected to the post of deputy leader of the Nationalist Party (and he will definitely be a shoo-in), the PN will receive the shot in the arm it so desperately needs.
No matter the many protestations of loyalty to Gonzi that will inevitably be made, everyone will consider Busuttil as the leader-designate and see in him the future of the party. The Prime Minister will fade into the background and all attention will be focused on the successful Busuttil.
What, then of the Labour tactics based on the negative portrayal of Gonzi? With his being effectively pushed aside, the PL is shorn of one of the central planks of its campaign.
True, it can continue to harp on the shortcomings of the Gonzi administration, the arrogance of Nationalist ministers and the €500 weekly raise in the honoraria of ministers. But somehow the significance of these issues seems to diminish with the passage of time and especially in view of the fact that ministers such as Austin Gatt have stated they would not be contesting the elections again.
With the promise of a new leader in Busuttil, wavering Nationalists or those who need that final push to leave the Nationalist camp and join the Labour one, are going to be looking for something else to motivate a change in their voting habits.
Now the Labour Party may have polls at hand which show that the water and electricity bills are the most pressing concern for a large enough section of the demographic to vote Labour into Castille.
However, Muscat must also be ready to substantiate his claims as to how a substantial decrease in the utility bills will be implemented in a sustainable manner. Otherwise he runs the risk of alienating those voters who are not taken in by vague electoral pre-electoral promises and fuzzy statements about bringing about change.
An article in the Financial Times listed Romney’s many mistakes, and concluded: “But in the end Mr Romney also suffered from a longer-term problem: The perception that he is political chameleon with no firmly held views. And, despite his constant campaign refrain – that he would improve the lives of working families and be a more effective manager of the economy – he failed to make a compelling case for change.”
Muscat should take note.