Anġlu Farrugia yesterday resigned as Labour Party deputy leader over his allegation that a magistrate was politically biased, a comment that party leader Joseph Muscat described as unacceptable.

Dr Muscat told an urgently convened press conference last night that he had asked Dr Farrugia to step down because the remark was “out of place” and “undermined one of the country’s highest institutions”, the judiciary.

The party leader said Dr Farrugia, who is deputy leader for parliamentary affairs, had indicated to him that he might not seek re-election.

Dr Farrugia had insisted he was right to argue the way he did against the magistrate but had shouldered his responsibilities and “acted out of loyalty to the party”, Dr Muscat said.

Magistrate Audrey Demicoli had acquitted a man accused of rigging votes in the March 2008 election.

Her judgment was recently overturned by an Appeals Court, which found the restaurateur guilty of threatening to sack one of his employees if she did not vote for the PN. The restaurateur was fined €800.

Speaking in Rabat last Sunday, Dr Farrugia accused the magistrate of political bias and mentioned that her father had been heavily involved in the PN’s machinery and strategy team.

The resignation also comes in the wake of Dr Farrugia’s performance – widely seen as dismal – in a debate with PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil on Xarabank last Saturday.

The debate was meant to have been held on Friday evening but instead of Dr Farrugia, rebel Nationalist MP Franco Debono showed up, prompting PBS to cancel the programme.

An election for a new deputy leader for parliamentary affairs (Toni Abela is deputy leader for party affairs) is to be held straight away.

Nominations will be received between today and tomorrow, with the election held at the end of an extraordinary general conference taking place next Thursday and Friday.

The election will break the promised respite from politics, as it comes in the middle of a Christmas break in campaigning that the two parties had agreed to in the run-up to the March 9 general election.

The position can be filled by any Labour member of Parliament or the party’s representatives at the European Parliament.

In answer to reporters’ questions, Dr Muscat categorically denied that former PL general secretary Jason Micallef, who is contesting the same 11th electoral district as Dr Farrugia, had put any pressure on the party over the matter.

Dr Muscat said he had communicated with Dr Farrugia earlier in the day asking for his resignation. He then wrote to party president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi calling an urgent party executive meeting for the evening, during which the situation was discussed.

It was not Dr Farrugia’s comments that were discussed but the way forward, Dr Muscat said.

Dr Farrugia has been an MP since 1996 and deputy leader since 2008. He is a former police superintendent and the PN has often labelled him as a throwback to the 1980s.

In its initial reaction, the Nationalist Party said Dr Busuttil, its new deputy leader, was bringing about “an earthquake within the Labour Party”.

“Dr Busuttil is setting Labour’s agenda,” the party said.

It said the PL’s actions last Friday, “when it tried to hide Dr Farrugia” showed the state of the Labour Party in opposition.

The PL had been overcome by panic after Dr Busuttil’s appointment and Dr Muscat was reacting to it.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said Dr Farrugia was just a “convenient scapegoat” for all the bad decisions Dr Muscat had taken in recent days. He referred to the Xarabank incident, saying Dr Muscat had lost a golden opportunity to present his policies to the people through his deputy. The ensuing debate showed Labour policies were just a void.

Addressing a Christmas reception at PN last night, Dr Gonzi said the reason given for the resignation was a “banal excuse” and he hoped the real reasons would emerge soon.

Labour said the episode reflected the difference in standards between the two parties, with those within the PL bearing their responsibilities and the PN’s Austin Gatt evading a no-confidence vote till the end.

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