Labour Party deputy leader Michael Falzon might be non-committal about his leadership aspirations, but he insists that the contest for the party's top post has to be fair and square.

Type in the words 'Michael Falzon' on You Tube and the first video which comes up is possibly one of the most accessed videos made locally.

His infamous "ole, ole" chant and rally call for the "lions of change" during Labour's mass meeting at the Floriana Granaries was superimposed within the MGM logo (complete with lion's roar) to poke fun at Labour's deputy... and potential leader.

The 46-year-old lawyer clearly takes it in his stride: "There go my chances of representing Malta at the Eurovision song contest," he laughs.

"My daughter showed me the video the first time round... though I must say it was somewhat unfair since it was edited in such a way as though I were alone on that stage, and not with 50,000-or-so chanting supporters."

Any feelings among Nationalist supporters of animosity towards the Labour deputy leader must have fizzled into nothing by Sunday night as television cameras zoomed in on Dr Falzon, as he single-handedly tried to stop tempers flaring at the Naxxar counting hall. It was the climax of a dramatic roller coaster day as the PN won the 2008 election by the skin of its teeth.

Dr Falzon walks into the interview rubbing his red, tired eyes, sinks into a chair and asks for a glass of water. He is still reeling from a 72-hour marathon stint at Naxxar with little sleep, as he oversaw the counting process.

"The feeling of disappointment is only setting in now," he says, his eyes gazing into thin air.

That sinking feeling must be exacerbated by the fact that the Labour Party was all but sure of victory in last week's election. Its top officials were smiling from ear to ear at the counting hall on Sunday morning, with some delegates even forecasting a "landslide" MLP victory of 9,000 votes. By late morning, several Labour supporters were already out in the street hooting their horns and waving flags, though Dr Falzon insists that the celebrations were in no way sanctioned by the party.

But the stark reality crept in once the vote sorting started. It was a neck and neck scenario, fought down to the wire, until a photo finish of 1,580 votes split the two parties.

Dr Falzon says the Labour Party was basing its victory predictions on the fact that turnout was down by 2.5 per cent from the 2003 election and the drop was mainly in Nationalist strongholds. The Labour deputy leader himself was quoted as saying he had a "precise idea" that the winning party would emerge with an "absolute majority".

Hasn't the Labour Party learnt not to jump the gun, especially after similarly predicting victory in 1998 and 2003?

"God forbid you go for an election without aiming to win... Given everything, I really believed Labour could have done it this time round," Dr Falzon says.

Within an hour of vote sorting, the party already had an indication of the end result, he explains. Yet, with such a razor-thin difference, both parties decided to act responsibly and resist making any categorical statements.

"We wanted to ensure we eliminated any chance of human error and wanted to wait for the first counts of MLP candidates. I had also agreed with (PN general secretary) Joe Saliba that we would give an indication of the result at around 9 p.m."

So, if by the evening the election was clearly swaying, albeit marginally, towards the PN, why did Labour general secretary Jason Micallef appear on television late at night to say that his party's figures were not tallying with the Nationalists'?

Dr Falzon explains: "The result was very close, and samples were changing. It would have been premature to concede defeat. At the counting hall I was constantly in touch with Alfred Sant and we waited until the entire sampling was completed by around 9 p.m. However, we waited for the unofficial first counts of the Labour candidates, as that would bring in certainty of the end result."

While other top Labour officials left the hall very shortly after the counting started, Dr Falzon, together with president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi and vice president Louis Gatt, stayed on.

MLP general secretary Jason Micallef and deputy leader Charles Mangion were criticised for leaving the counting hall, to the extent that they felt compelled to issue a statement last Wednesday to defend their decision.

Dr Falzon says: "Officials have to be present at different places. I've always stayed on at the counting hall. Somebody was needed at the headquarters. Yesterday they (Jason Micallef and deputy leader Charles Mangion) issued a statement to say they were next to Dr Sant and I assume this is true. I kept in touch with Dr Sant - I am not the leader and I couldn't take decisions on my own."

Would he have preferred to have had more support at Naxxar?

"I did my job to the best of my ability. I have no regrets for having stayed on until Tuesday. I don't want to pass judgment on anybody. Needless to say, all support at such moments is more than welcome," he replies in a diplomatic tone.

"It's not easy to lose an election, congratulate the PN officials and go on television to explain we're conceding defeat. At that point I just felt the responsibility of not letting the country hang on for an entire night."

Dr Falzon is reluctant to put his finger on the cause of the election defeat, saying that everyone in the party is still too hurt at this stage to analyse matters objectively.

Though he insists that he would have liked to see a more interactive campaign, he dismisses claims that the MLP's campaign came across as too negative. In reality, both parties had their fair share of mud slinging during the five-week campaign.

"I sincerely believe we tried to do our utmost to put our positive campaign across," he says, noting, however, that claims of corruption cited by the Labour Party in its campaign appear to be justified judging by the Prime Minister's choice of Cabinet last Wednesday. It is also important to note that the Nationalist Party failed to win an absolute majority and there was a swing in favour of Labour.

Does he think that Dr Sant ultimately tilted the balance in favour of the Nationalists?

"At this stage I think it's unfair to point fingers at anybody. Of course, there's a lot to be done. We expected to win this election; we did our utmost, not least Alfred, who had just returned from a serious operation. We gave it all we could. There's no point looking back."

He also pointed out that Dr Sant had obtained two-thirds of the delegates' votes when he re-contested his post in 2003, weeks after the Labour leader had said he would resign following the election defeat.

How would he describe his relationship with Dr Sant?

"I've always been a free-talker and sometimes I paid the price for it. I worked with Alfred and obviously there were divergences between us, though it was not a difference in opinion on policies or ideals. We had a good relationship. I gave him my full support throughout. And I won't be the one who says I won't assume my own responsibility as part of the leadership which narrowly lost the election on Saturday."

Likewise, Dr Falzon dismisses as mere speculation claims that he is at loggerheads with the MLP general secretary.

"People say a lot of things. Maybe a lot of people see Jason as closer to Dr Sant than me. But we worked as a team. I even heard a rumour that we came to blows at one point," he laughs.

Isn't it high time for officials to be openly critical of the party leadership, if circumstances so necessitate?

"I've always believed that it's the leader who should belong to the party, and not the other way round... and I believe we had that. A party is made up of many people. It's not wrong to have different opinions. I believe in politics of inclusion."

He admits that there were divergent opinions in the Labour Party in the past 15 years or so, and that a number of individuals have kept their distance. He believes the party should now try to get closer to youngsters and the different sections of the middle class.

"We need to be more open to new ideas, new people. There's nothing to be scared of out there," he points out.

The son of a staunch Labourite, Dr Falzon, renowned for his love of fireworks and feasts, says he grew up believing in left-wing values. Contesting his first general election last week, he was elected from two districts on his party's ticket.

He is being mentioned by some as the logical replacement for Dr Sant, who announced his resignation last Monday. Nevertheless, he is reluctant to declare himself as a sure candidate for the leadership post, until Tuesday's executive meeting.

He says that there was pressure upon him from many people to contest though he is reluctant to say who, or which faction of the party, is supporting his cause.

Since he is not renowned as a 'Sant acolyte', does he fear that top officials like Mr Micallef could put spokes in the wheels of his leadership bid?

"If there is a contest and if I'm part of it, I believe that everyone has the right to back anybody they choose. But nobody has a right to play dirty... or to try to disrupt the fair contest. I will be the first to declare outright that I'd be ashamed of being in a party where the leadership contest ends up fomenting more division. Jason or anybody else has a right to back their candidate, but they have no right to play dirty or to use the party's machinery to work against somebody."

Is there anybody Dr Falzon won't work with if he is successful?

"I will word it in another way - is there anybody who won't work with me? If not, they're free to go. I'll work with anybody."

Even with the current administration?

"This administration is up for review come next January. Who knows?"

Looking ahead, Dr Falzon says that the EU is no longer an issue, even if the MLP still showed signs of discomfort with certain EU policies during the five-week campaign.

"For me the matter is closed - 1,000 per cent. We're well integrated with the European Socialists."

He thinks Labour can appeal to the moderates by adopting a more positive attitude. Despite being branded a 'crowd rouser', especially during the election campaign, he urges critics to note that he never indulged in personal attacks.

"I say what I have to say. I'm very blunt but I believe policies are more important than individuals. Ultimately, I have always respected the party, even when I disagreed with going to the polls in 1998."

If Dr Falzon is elected Labour leader by May, is he prepared to carry out the radical changes many are clamouring for?

"There will be changes... We need politics with a face. I believe in inclusive politics. I am people-oriented."

As he rises to leave the interview he switches on his mobile phone, and scores of text messages pour in. Most of them are encouraging him to throw his hat into the ring.

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