Ban of the three MPs from contesting on party ticket considered a risky move while setting new challenges for the PM

The Nationalist Party executive committee’s unanimous decision to ban the three MPs who inflicted crisis after crisis on the government from running for election was expected and welcomed by many, particularly among core Nationalist voters.

However, many who felt the decision was good for the party still felt it was too late in the day and maybe not forceful enough. Some preferred outright expulsion.

It was also a risky move, if the PN still intended holding on to remain in office till the end of the legislature, which expires in the first half of next year.

Political analysts said the decision not to allow Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Jesmond Mugliett and Franco Debono to contest on a PN ticket was a clear sign the party “is fed up” with their manoeuvres and wanted to appear in control of the situation.

At the same time, the PN’s action set new challenges to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi who, at the end of the day, had to decide when to blow the whistle and ask the electorate to pass judgement on hisgovernment’s performance.

“Politically, last Thursday’s decision was a good one for the Nationalist Party as I am sure it would bring back disgruntled Nationalists to the fold,” former Labour minister and columnist Lino Spiteri said.

“From Labour’s point of view, it depends on how the decision is seen by grassroot Nationalist voters and by the undecided and new voters,” he said.

Even for Noel Buttigieg Scicluna, a former diplomat and Nationalist MP in the early 1980s, the decision was a positive one.

“The PN’s decision was a natural one and a consequence of the decisions made by the three MPs to step outside the party’s Whip.”

Dr Buttigieg Scicluna said the PN also acted well when it concurrently approved a list of new candidates showing the party was still alive and kicking.

For Joe Friggieri, the punishment meted out to Dr Debono, Dr Pullicino Orlando and Mr Mugliett might have a different bearing on the three.

“Since Jesmond Mugliett and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando had already made it clear they would not contest the forthcoming election, the PN’s decision affects Franco Debono more than the other two,” he said.

“There is a growing feeling among unbiased observers of the local political scene that the party should have accepted his resignation in January,” Prof. Friggieri said.

Others disagree. A PN insider, who asked not to be named, said that although Dr Pullicino Orlando and Mr Mugliett had announced their decision not to contest, they chose such path after coming to the logical conclusion they stood no chance of making it to Parliament again following their performance in this legislature.

“The significance of the PN executive committee’s decision is more in the message than the format. The PN is now formally telling the three MPs they’ve crossed the line and aren’t wanted by the PN any longer.”

Now that the PN’s third consecutive electoral mandate entered its last year, speculation is rife on whether Parliament will reconvene on October 1 or whether the Prime Minister will call an election after the PN’s traditional Independence celebrations in September.

The move evokes memories of the 1996 political situation, which may not be a good omen for the party as this was the last and only election when the PN failed to gain a majority of votes since 1976.

Sociologist Fr Joe Inguanez thinks the Nationalist executive’s decision will definitely impinge on the duration of this legislature.

“So far, one may assume that Parliament will reconvene in October and the government has some elbow room,” he said.

“However, it all depends on how many votes it will be able to muster in the House,” he said.

According to Fr Inguanez, one option can be the presentation of the next Budget on the very first sitting, asking Parliament for a crucial vote on a very concrete and extremely important Bill.

“This will actually be a vote of confidence or no-confidence,” he noted.

“This boils down to political strategy and this is the role of the PN’s political strategists and the Prime Minister’s closest advisers,” he said.

Dr Buttigieg Scicluna also thinks MPs will still be called in for work in October.

“For me, the election will still be held in spring 2013. At the end of the day, none of the Nationalist MPs, not even Dr Pullicino Orlando, Mr Mugliett or Dr Debono have the guts to topple the government. I think they’ve all made their calculations and won’t want to be remembered in the history books as being responsible for bringing down a Nationalist government.”

Lino Spiteri, who was an MP when Labour was forced out of power after merely 22 months in office in 1998, has a different take.

“It is a very confused situation and I doubt whether Parliament will be reconvened again,” he said.

“In the circumstances, it is very evident that an election could be announced before the end of Parliament’s summer recess.”

Joe Friggieri, on the other hand, feels the situation is still too fluid: “I think the Prime Minister is still keeping all his options open.”

“It is a very fluid situation and as Prime Minister, not just a leader of the party, Dr Gonzi might still want to see whether he can go ahead with parliamentary business in October and call an election only if this proves impossible.

“He didn’t say this in as many words but he seems to have implied it,” he said.

The PN executive will be meeting again on Tuesday, this time to hear “irrefutable” evidence that Dr Pullicino Orlando plans to present to support his claim that Richard Cachia Caruana, one of the PN’s longest standing strategists, colluded with the last Labour government.

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