The June 2009 euro-parliamentary elections may be a world away for many but they are already being seen as Jason Micallef's crucial test within the Labour Party, only a day after he was confirmed as general secretary.
Early yesterday at around 3 a.m., he was elected in a tight race after polling a sizeable 370 of the 837 valid votes cast. The rest of the votes were split among Alfred Grixti, with 229 votes, Joe Vella Bonnici, 224 and Keith Grech with just 14.
But while his strong showing secures his place for the time being, unless Labour improves on or at least maintains the result it obtained in 2004 at the European Parliament elections, come 2010, he may be challenged once again.
"In reality the MEP elections are a test for the whole leadership and the administration. In 2004 the election result had put the top brass in a secure position after the 2003 general election defeat and this time round, the MEP vote will play a similar pivotal role," a Labour source said.
In fact, many within the party consider the strong support won by Mr Micallef to be the result of an uncoordinated and clumsy effort by a majority within the party who would rather have seen him replaced.
"Jason had a very effective one-to-one campaign with the delegates but the blunt truth is that the camp against him was split," one source said, pointing out that Mr Grixti and Mr Vella Bonnici polled 453 votes between them.
After Gino Cauchi and Joe Chetcuti dropped out of the race in the final week of the campaign it seemed as though his challengers stood a real chance of toppling him. Mr Vella Bonnici, who was being pushed by a number of high-ranking officials, MPs and some assistants of the leader himself, made huge gains in that week, but it was enough.
The resistance to Mr Micallef was linked to his role in the March general election defeat (Labour's third in a row) but also, perhaps more significantly, with rifts that developed between him and different officials within the party.
Commenting yesterday, Mr Micallef said that he would be everyone's general secretary. "The delegates chose me because they felt I still have a contribution to make. I will strive to be everyone's general secretary," he said.
Similarly, when confronted with the fact that public opinion was against him, he said that he would take that as a challenge.
"As I said, I managed to convince the delegates, now I need to convince the doubters out there that they are wrong, through my work and the results. That is what politics is made of."
The party leader equally would not go into specifics when asked if he thought Mr Micallef would manage to mend the rifts he had with party officials.
He did warn, however, that he expects "anyone in an institutional role within the party to toe the line I have given and that is to unite the party and resolve any disputes there may be with anyone within the party".
On this point, he commented on the statement released by Alfred Grixti who said that he was respecting the will of the delegates and that he would be working within the party. "I believe that is the right spirit," he said, also pointing out the similar attitude of his own main rival for the leadership, George Abela.
Nonetheless, Mr Micallef's critics were not as convinced. The party's former deputy leader Michael Falzon, who wrote a scathing seven-page letter attacking Mr Micallef in the week preceding the vote, said yesterday he would be respecting the delegates' will but added, when asked, that he still had no intention of working with Mr Micallef.
"I don't need to work with him, I'm no longer a member of the administration," he pointed out. Labour's education spokesman Evarist Bartolo, also a challenger to the leadership post, was not as direct but clearly showed he was not pleased with the result. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," he said, repeating a phrase he has been slipping into a few newspaper columns he wrote in the past few months.
"We have to see what he intends doing to solve the rifts that exist between himself and a number of people. So far, I mean since the general election result and the publication of the defeat report, I have not seen substantive proof of change," he continued.
"I think the general secretary has to be humble enough to acknowledge that some 500 delegates are against him, and that he does not only have problems with people up top but also with the grassroots," he said. Environment spokesman Leo Brincat, who also launched an attack on Mr Micallef prior to the election, was rather curt and said only that he would stick to the first sentence in that same letter when he said that he would be respecting the will of the delegates.
"I said that I would respect the delegates' decision and that's what I intend doing. Any comment would be superfluous," he said.
Another surprise comeback was that of former Labour Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona, who beat Joe Mifsud to the post of international secretary.
Known for his position against EU membership - an opinion which he maintained well after the election that decided the matter, unlike Labour itself - Dr Sceberras Trigona will be now representing the party's foreign policy at a number of international fora.
But on this point, Dr Muscat said he had spoken to Dr Sceberras Trigona before he fielded his name for the contest and made Labour's foreign policy on the EU clear to him. "I told him I expect an official of the party to represent the party line and he made it clear that he had no problem."
From his end, Dr Sceberras Trigona rejected the Eurosceptic label, pointing out that the European Commission had employed him to lecture its diplomats precisely because he was a "Euro-realist".
"I'm neither blinkered about anything EU related nor raging against it," he insisted.
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