The candidates in the Labour Party's leadership race have been instructed to refrain from giving any comments to the media or else face disqualification. The MLP's vigilance and discipline board has decided to muzzle those that are planning to contest the upcoming leadership election - at least for the time being, it was learnt yesterday.

In a letter ironically dated April 1, Joseph Falzon, the chairman of Labour's internal electoral commission, recently set up to oversee the contest, says he had been instructed by the chairmen of the disciplinary, vigilance and appeals boards to inform "whoever somehow showed an interest to contest a leadership post" not to give any comments to the media.

"I've also been instructed by the same chairmen to inform you that whoever fails to abide by these instructions will be disqualified from submitting his nomination once these nominations are open," Mr Falzon wrote.

The stand contradicts a previous unanimous decision by the same commission not to stop any of the candidates from giving interviews and comes after three of the main contenders, Joseph Muscat, Michael Falzon and Evarist Bartolo, have already announced their intentions and were given extensive media coverage.

To complicate matters, a fourth contender, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, said yesterday she would still go ahead with her announced press conference today, in which she will officially launch her candidacy, despite the media ban.

"I cleared the matter with the commission," she said when contacted yesterday. "So far, I have not confirmed my interest in the leadership race in a definitive way. There has only been speculation so far, so the directive does not apply to me. I will declare that interest tomorrow (today) after which I will then be bound by the commission's decision."

Ms Coleiro Preca has been reluctant to commit herself and hardly gave any comments on the matter from the beginning.

The other likely contender who has yet to put his name to the race officially, George Abela, on the other hand told Radio 101 he protested against the commission's directive, telling the radio interviewer that it would amount to an advantage to candidates who have already declared their candidature.

He also complained about the fact that the commission is considering whether he qualifies to contest the election given that he is not a party delegate. Dr Abela noted that there had been no such objections when he stood for deputy leader in 1992.

So far he has been ambivalent about his intentions to contest, saying only that he will announce his decision at the appropriate time, while calling for a level playing field for all the candidates.

His bid comes with considerable controversy as he has been at loggerheads with the party's administration for years, especially after quitting his post before the premature general election in 1998. Even recently, in fact, speaking on Xarabank, MLP general secretary Jason Micallef indicated he did not welcome Dr Abela's interest in the leadership post.

The commission's letter says that the "terms of reference" (in relation to the electoral process) will be finalised this week. Party insiders said the final decision on the terms of reference was expected to be taken last night, which means they could be made public today. The Times contacted Mr Falzon asking whether it was fair to impose a media ban now that three candidates had already made use of it to launch their campaign. However, he would not comment on the matter, saying that these "were internal party matters".

None of the three candidates, however, appeared to favour the idea of the media ban. Deputy leader Michael Falzon said he disagreed, adding he is prepared to abide by "any decision the party takes".

"It's not a final decision yet... I agree that there should be some rules which ensure fairness," he said.

Similarly, Dr Muscat said he thinks all candidates should be allowed to express their views freely on any media. "I trust that each and every one of the candidates wants the best for the party," he said, adding, like Dr Falzon, that he would abide by the rules laid down by the competent bodies. Mr Bartolo was more cautious, saying he would wait for the commission to issue the terms of reference and react later.

In the meantime, Labour MP Anġlu Farrugia has said he is considering contesting either the leader or the deputy leader's post.

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