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[ANALYSIS] Is Malta’s snap election a trial by votes?

Joseph Muscat had three choices: resign until the magisterial inquiry is concluded, carry on as if nothing had happened until November or March, or call an election, as he did. Why did Muscat choose the last option?

james
James Debono
4 May 2017, 7:46am
The downside of Joseph Muscat’s choice is that it feeds the perception that he is calling an election to pre-empt the results of the investigation which may well be finalised after the election
The downside of Joseph Muscat’s choice is that it feeds the perception that he is calling an election to pre-empt the results of the investigation which may well be finalised after the election
Resign pending the investigation

Muscat could well have chosen to resign, let his parliamentary group appoint deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech as Prime Minister and allow the present government to complete the legislature.  

This would not have necessarily meant Muscat’s departure from politics. For if the whistleblower’s claims were not proven in the magisterial inquiry, Muscat may well have returned to lead the Labour Party again in the election. 

Something similar has happened in Italy where Matteo Renzi resigned as PM after losing a referendum on constitutional reform, with Paolo Gentiloni taking his place.  Subsequently Renzi was confirmed as party leader.

But unlike Renzi, Muscat’s resignation would have been prompted by judicial events, something which is more reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi, who repeatedly faced judicial investigations while in government.

One advantage of this option for the country would have been that the EU Presidency would have not have been concluded by a PM who is under investigation.  

Yet Muscat may well have feared that further allegations could be in the pipeline, further undermining his credibility. Moreover Simon Busuttil’s willingness to present proof to the inquiring magistrate, thus extending the current investigation to include Keith Schembri’s alleged kickbacks from a secret company (Willerby) owned by Brian Tonna and set up a few days after the 2013 general election, may have rung an alarm bell. For after relinquishing power, it would have been difficult for Labour to put back Muscat at the helm in the event of a full blown court case involving his closest aide, Keith Schembri.  

Moreover if the magisterial inquiry keeps suspicions on Egrant’s ownership alive by for example proving suspicious movements of money, Muscat’s political comeback would also have been jeopardised.   

Moreover the premature end of Muscat’s term in office may well have further undermined economic stability and thus endangered Muscat’s greatest economic achievements.

Keep on governing as if nothing has happened

Muscat may well have chosen to stay on in power, let the judicial inquiry take its course and call an election after the inquiry is finalised. The problem for Muscat in this case would have been that his political future would have depended on the outcome of the magisterial inquiry. Muscat may well have argued that he has a political mandate to complete the legislature and this cannot be undermined by unproven allegations. But the downside of this is that he would have ended up in the international spotlight, especially during the conclusion of the EU Presidency. 

For if the whistleblowers or the Opposition leader’s claims are entirely or partly proven, Muscat would have ended having no choice but to resign before the election itself, leaving his party leaderless on the eve of the general election. But had Muscat kept on governing, he may well have had the opportunity of presenting a pre-electoral budget and if vindicated by the inquiry he may well have used this to discredit the opposition for what he dubbed “the greatest lie in Maltese political history”.

Gamble it all on an election

In choosing to call an election while addressing a party political meeting, Muscat may well have taken a calculated gamble based on favourable polls. MaltaToday’s polls show his party retaining a four-point advantage over the PN, even it registers a drop in his trust rating. Muscat may also be wary of a possible haemorrhage of votes if the judicial investigation drags and if further allegations come to light.

The downside of Muscat’s choice is that it feeds the perception that he is calling an election to pre-empt the results of the investigation which may well be finalised after the election. In this way voters will be voting in the dark while Muscat seems to be seeking vindication of an electoral mandate before clearing his name. Still Muscat has already declared that he would resign if the inquiry confirms the whistleblower’s claims. Yet Muscat has been more hesitant on whether he would resign if the leader of the opposition’s claims on his chief of staff are proved.  Yet his decision to retain and defend Schembri fully puts the onus on Muscat if it turns out that Schembri did received kickbacks from Tonna's secret company.

In any case if the inquiry is not concluded during the electoral campaign, the election itself may well be inconclusive. The quandary for the country would be even greater if the inquiry vindicates the whistleblower (or Busuttil on Schembri) after the general election.  For if Muscat resigns after winning the election, where would this leave his party and would the next leader enjoy the legitimacy of Muscat’s mandate which would have been based on the premise that he was a victim of a fabrication?

Still if Muscat has been saying the truth about himself, his wife and Schembri, the inquiry will simply confirm this, and the opposition would have been dealt a second knock out after the election.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...