Joe Saliba, a former general secretary of the Nationalist Party, has called on the Prime Minister to accept backbencher Franco Debono’s demand to split the justice and home affairs portfolios.

“The Prime Minister should always try and find the best solution for the country. I believe this is the best way forward for the country,” Mr Saliba said yesterday.

The Times contacted nine former politicians and commentators asking them what Lawrence Gonzi should do in view of tomorrow’s deadline imposed by Dr Debono.

The backbencher has warned that unless the Prime Minister split the portfolios by the end of the year he would no longer support the government in Parliament, where the government has a one-seat majority.

Even former MP and ex-PN president Frank Portelli believes giving in to Dr Debono is the best option for the party and the country.

He said splitting the portfolios “makes sense” and would kill the issue for the time being, while calling an election could be detrimental to the party.

“Remember that no political party experiencing internal turmoil can win a general election,” he said, adding that the PN was not yet geared for an election and would risk suffering heavily at the polls.

Former Labour minister Lino Spiteri also thinks Dr Gonzi should accede to Dr Debono’s wishes but only if he had indeed promised to split the portfolios by year’s end, as the backbencher claimed.

“If Dr Gonzi did not make a promise but only indicated he might do it, he should be clear about when he will do so. If he didn’t tell him anything of the sort, it’s a different matter altogether but, so far, Dr Debono has never appeared to be lying,” Mr Spiteri said.

Others are not so convinced that Dr Debono should be appeased once again in a legislature that has been characterised by backbenchers using the government’s one-seat majority to force its hand.

Dominic Fenech, a former general secretary of the Labour Party, said he would never tolerate such “blackmail”.

Accepting Dr Debono’s demand would make the Prime Minister lose respect and credibility, he said, even if splitting the ministry in two was a good idea.

He argued that rejecting the demand would not necessarily lead to an election because there was no money Bill at stake, even though the situation could eventually become unsustainable.

Prof. Fenech felt the Prime Minister caused the problem himself by promising Dr Debono he would split the portfolios by the end of the year. If such a promise was made, the Prime Minister should have never retracted, Prof. Fenech said.

Former Nationalist MP Josie Muscat feels the Prime Minister should “call Franco’s bluff”.

He accused the young criminal lawyer of being politically immature and not playing the political game.

“He’s not threatening to switch sides but to remain independent. I would tell him he can be independent. It would be political suicide.”

If Dr Debono really wanted to get something done, Dr Muscat said, he should have left Parliament and set up a pressure group. “It would be more effective,” he said. “Otherwise, he must accept party discipline.”

Former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon said it was unacceptable for the Prime Minister to be “held hostage” in such a way.

If he were in Dr Gonzi’s shoes, Mr Falzon said he would try to “bridge the gap” with the MP but not simply give in to him.

Veteran former Nationalist minister Alexander Cachia Zammit said he was confident the Prime Minister would make the right decision in this “unfortunate” and “delicate” situation. “If it were me, I’d take as much time as possible. It’s a pity it reached this stage. Politics today is very different to what it was in our time,” Dr Cachia Zammit said.

Former Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola believes Dr Gonzi is likely to “buy time” because accepting Dr Debono’s request will make him look weak while rejecting it will mean a snap election, which the PN cannot afford.

Prof. Cassola warned that by taking a “supermarket” attitude to candi­dates even Labour leader Joseph Muscat risked meeting the same fate if he became Prime Minister.

Former Labour Prime Minister Alfred Sant, who faced a similar situation with Dom Mintoff in 1998 and ended up calling an election, said he had “no comment” to make.

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