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Why 2019 can be make-or-break for either Joseph Muscat or Adrian Delia

LONG READ | Polls show Adrian Delia is failing to inspire trust and Joseph Muscat at an all-time high trust rating. This analysis looks at the fortunes of both leaders in the run-up to a crucial year of reckoning: the European and local council elections of 2019

kurt_sansone
Kurt Sansone
1 December 2017, 1:00pm
2019 will be the year of reckoning for Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia even if different futures await them
2019 will be the year of reckoning for Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia even if different futures await them
Adrian Delia: Not a game of football

When Birkirkara FC dumped Scottish football team Hearts out of the Europa League two seasons ago, few thought this was possible.

There was, however, one man who believed his club could make history and become the first Maltese team to progress two rounds in European club competitions.

Adrian Delia was then president of Birkirkara FC and known for his outspokenness and uplifting dressing room pep talks. He believed and Birkirkara did the unthinkable.

Adrian Delia took charge of the PN last September
Adrian Delia took charge of the PN last September
Now at the helm of the Nationalist Party, Delia may want to look back at that moment of glory and believe he can repeat the same feat in politics.

To do that, however, he will have to overlook last season’s faux pas that saw Birkirkara lose out on a place in Europe after the club missed the deadline for submitting the necessary paperwork – football aficionados blame Delia for this mistake.

But even if the paperwork fiasco is forgiven, Delia knows that the game he plays now has higher stakes and comes with complicated written and unwritten rules. Understanding people’s concerns and aspirations is only one aspect of politics. Delia will also have to map out a way forward but most of all he must inspire enough trust in people that allows them to vote for him in an election.

It will not be easy and everything suggests Delia has a hard slog ahead of him, not only to convince the people at large but also the PN’s own hard-core supporters.

A question of trust

Since clinching the PN leadership last September, Delia has failed to make any inroads among voters. More worryingly for him is the fact that he has not even managed to convince PN voters.

The latest trust barometer published by MaltaToday last Sunday saw Delia lose almost seven points over the October survey and this at a time when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat faced flak in the aftermath of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

A MaltaToday survey found that only 39% who voted PN in the last election trust Delia
A MaltaToday survey found that only 39% who voted PN in the last election trust Delia
It also showed Delia winning the trust of only 39% of respondents who voted PN last June.

Finding glory is going to take much more than sipping a cup of tea at the Siggiewi party club in the morning while reading the newspapers and speaking to people.

The trust barometer is one aspect Delia would do good not to ignore. His predecessor never managed to overcome the trust gap with Muscat in four years, not even at the height of the Panama Papers scandal.

"Delia’s chances of political survival might be determined by the 2019 European elections, which will determine whether he can offer Muscat a real challenge"
Delia tried to portray himself as his own man during the PN leadership election. This he did by taking on the party establishment. It was a move that many grassroots Nationalists appreciated but roll forward a few months and in his first significant parliamentary speech in reply to the Budget, Delia delivered a hard-hitting discourse that appeared to be a leaf out of his predecessor’s hymnbook.

Speaking just 24 hours after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder Delia failed to project a statesmanlike approach and instead headed for the political trenches.

In an uncharacteristically short speech he closed off by calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. This he did hesitantly and to casual observers it appeared to be an out-of-character move.

Since then, Delia has not called for Muscat’s scalp again, which suggests the original call may not have been of his own making in the first place.

To observers it appeared that Delia the anti-establishment campaigner had transmuted into Delia the leader of the status quo.

Tackling dissent

Admittedly, Delia’s first keynote parliamentary speech came at a delicate juncture for him.

It was not an easy start, as he had to contend with a restless backbench where some senior figures, including ex-leader Simon Busuttil, Jason Azzopardi and Karol Aquilina stuck to the pre-electoral stand that placed anti-corruption discourse above anything else.

Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi form part of Delia's restless backbench
Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi form part of Delia's restless backbench
Caruana Galizia’s murder gave the PN’s dissenting voices an even stronger platform to continue hitting out at Muscat and in a less than subtle way at Delia.

The situation forced the PN leader to stay away from the demonstrations organised by the Civil Society Network. Along with Muscat and President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, he was a persona non grata at Caruana Galizia’s funeral.

Delia had been a target of the slain journalist over claims he held an offshore account in Jersey and acted as legal counsel for the Maltese owners of a London property linked to prostitution.

While the shots were being called by the emerging Civil Society Network, buoyed also by the presence of senior PN figures who had opposed Delia’s leadership bid, the PN leader could only bide his time to strengthen the grip on the party.

This he did in the weeks that followed. A majority of Delia backers made it to the executive council, Kristy Debono clinched the presidency of the general council and in a sly move, Clyde Puli was installed secretary general without a contest.

Delia’s reluctance to give MPs a free vote on the motion put forward by the party to rescind a law granting leave to couples undergoing IVF treatment was his way of forcing his hand.

No free vote on the IVF leave motion forced six PN MPs to stay away from the vote
No free vote on the IVF leave motion forced six PN MPs to stay away from the vote
It may not have been the best war to pick – the PN’s stand continued to push the LGBTIQ community away from it – but Delia used the occasion to out the problematic MPs on his side of the fence.

The whole ruckus painted a picture of disunity that does little to bolster the PN’s standing among voters but for the time being, Delia’s priority may lie elsewhere.

Ensuring the previous party establishment falls in line with his way of doing politics may be more important at this stage than growing stronger in the polls. But in doing so Delia has to be careful not to kill the patient while the surgery is underway.

If the PN’s fortunes dip further he may find it next to impossible to scale back the gap with the Labour Party in the May 2019 European Parliament elections. An even worse result than the last election for the PN could deliver a mortal blow to Delia’s aspirations.

Financial disarray

Furthermore Delia will also have to contend with the precarious financial situation the PN finds itself in.

Selling off several party clubs – a plan concocted by the previous party administration to pay off debts – may plug the gap for the medium term but will create a backlash among the grassroots starved of their village meeting place.

Some PN clubs are being sold and others earmarked for commercialisation as the party tries to control its debts
Some PN clubs are being sold and others earmarked for commercialisation as the party tries to control its debts
The PN’s financial woes cannot be taken lightly. Pressure to manage a deteriorating situation forced Delia’s predecessor Simon Busuttil to go with a begging bowl to large business operators.

In a case that exploded earlier this year the db Group alleged it had been asked to finance the salaries of top PN officials under the guise of false invoices issued by the party’s media company.

The case is now in court after the PN contested the Electoral Commission’s role as watchdog and investigator of political party finances.

Delia will have to come up with a viable plan to keep the party running while avoiding the temptation of walking into a db-like scandal that would give his adversaries fodder at election time.

He may also have to revise his pledge to appoint paid directors in view of the situation.

Getting the house in order may be of little bother to people outside the PN but if the problem is mishandled it can create credibility issues for a party wanting to project itself as a government in waiting.

Ideological wilderness

Beyond the strategic moves to consolidate power inside the party and out-manoeuvre his political adversary, Delia will have to craft a policy platform.

A political party is about ideology after all and in the wake of a Labour Party that has comfortably occupied the centre ground at a time of plenty, Delia’s job is even harder.

The legalisation of recreational marijuana could pose a liberal challenge for the PN
The legalisation of recreational marijuana could pose a liberal challenge for the PN
The PN has time and again shown its reluctance to embrace civil rights issues as a matter of conviction. In the wake of the IVF leave motion it increasingly looks less likely Delia will attempt to claw back that territory. The next test will come when the government pushes forward changes to the Embryo Protection Act. More challenges will follow if government adopts a liberalising view on marijuana use and prostitution.

On the economic front the PN has to redefine what it believes in. From the party that championed privatisation it became the party critical of government’s policy to rope in private investors in the health and energy sectors. From the party that believed in a shift from direct to indirect taxes, it became the party critical of government’s policy to raise indirect taxes to make up for income tax cuts. From the party that encouraged development the PN became a party lukewarm on major construction projects.

Delia has so far given little indication of where he intends to take the PN on bread and butter issues, let alone the thorny civil liberties ground. He does not yet have an inspiring vision.

He has made some noise on law and order, a move that sees him trying to capitalise on discontent in localities that are home to migrant communities. It is a dangerous road that risks descending into xenophobia, prejudice and racism. How far Delia will go with this policy still has to be seen but the PN desperately needs to find its political identity.

The numbers are not on Delia’s side but many would be willing to give him a chance before passing judgement.

Adrian Delia still has to map out the ideological direction of the PN
Adrian Delia still has to map out the ideological direction of the PN
While Delia may take his time to develop a strategy to re-unite his party and start developing a credible political platform that reaches beyond the anti-corruption calls of the past four years, the next appointment is only 18 months away.

The PN leader has said his target is winning the next general election but in a country crazed by elections, Delia may find out that his future could be sealed three years earlier. The European Parliament election in 2019 could turn out to be his make-or-break year.

Joseph Muscat: To stay or to go

It was 2008 when a young man from Burmarrad stood up on the stage at the Labour Party headquarters and asked people to call him by his name.

Inside that packed hall, the brand ‘Joseph Muscat’ was born and nine years later, despite losing some of its lustre, it is still going strong.

The Joseph Muscat brand was born in 2008 and retains currency despite some setbacks
The Joseph Muscat brand was born in 2008 and retains currency despite some setbacks
Confirmed at the last election with an even higher majority, Muscat is still on the ascendency as he presides over a thriving economy that has generated widespread wealth and jobs.

And judging from the evaluations carried out by credit rating agencies and other international organisations, it appears the sun will continue to shine for the foreseeable future.

It is this ‘feel-good’ climate that has helped Muscat weather some of the political storms that came his way over the past four years. But it was not only this. His charm and the ability to react to even the most minute of concerns – vide the budget measure two years ago to invest money in the complete overhaul of a particular street in Marsa – continues to inspire trust.

 

Panama blues

The Panama Papers scandal and the Prime Minister’s reluctance to remove Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri risked derailing the government. The affair angered many and gave the Opposition ammunition to mobilise people.

It was Muscat’s sternest test since becoming Prime Minister and it also put his friendship with Schembri under the spotlight.

Panama Papers was Muscat's sternest test as Prime Minister
Panama Papers was Muscat's sternest test as Prime Minister
Muscat reacted by taking the most confusing of decisions. Mizzi was forced to resign the deputy leadership of the Labour Party and his ministerial portfolios were taken away from him only to be retained as minister within the Office of the Prime Minister. No action was taken against Schembri.

The moves helped thwart a parliamentary embarrassment when an emboldened Opposition filed a ‘no confidence’ motion against Mizzi.

During the European Parliament hearing on Leo Brincat’s appointment to the European Court of Auditors, the former MP admitted he had voted against the motion because of the parliamentary Whip system. Brincat had been critical of Mizzi’s decision to open a company in Panama and he was not alone.

However, all government MPs eventually fell in line and a vulnerable Muscat survived to fight another day.

The Opposition mobilised people after the Panama Papers affair: Photography by Ivan M Consiglio/MediaToday
The Opposition mobilised people after the Panama Papers affair: Photography by Ivan M Consiglio/MediaToday
It was at this juncture that the Opposition failed to realise that after a barrage over several weeks, people were fed up of listening about Panama and offshore companies. People understood that no proof of corruption had materialised and Mizzi had paid a price. They were willing to close one eye, not to upset the applecart.

Muscat capitalised on this and shifted the discourse onto bread and butter issues, which the PN could not counter.

An impatient electorate

Then came the Egrant saga. The accusation first levelled by slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and later taken on board by Simon Busuttil was that Muscat’s wife, Michelle, owned the third mysterious company that had been mentioned in Panama Papers.

The Egrant campaign tried to do the impossible – bring down the Prime Minister.

The Egrant story implicating Joseph Muscat's wife forced the Prime Minister to call an early election
The Egrant story implicating Joseph Muscat's wife forced the Prime Minister to call an early election
The move backfired badly.

The proof, supposedly held by a former employee of Pilatus Bank that showed Michelle Muscat as the owner of Egrant, never materialised.

By calling an election and requesting a magisterial inquiry to which he pinned his political career, Muscat managed to turn the tables on his opponent.

People believed him and from then on accusations levelled by the Opposition were simply brushed off by an impatient electorate that wanted the election over and done with.

Excerpts of reports drawn up by the Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit on Pilatus Bank that were leaked to the press failed to leave the intended impact. These reports implicated people close to the Prime Minister in money laundering, prompting the Opposition to ask for the scalp of the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General for failing to act.

But Muscat weathered yet another storm and went on to win the election with an even bigger majority. Not only did he trounce his opponent but he also threw the PN into disarray.

 

Weathering the fallout

The bolt in the blue came last October when Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in a violent car bomb.

Like Delia, Muscat was unwelcome at Daphne Caruana Galizia's funeral
Like Delia, Muscat was unwelcome at Daphne Caruana Galizia's funeral
Muscat acted quickly by roping in foreign investigators to help the police. He promised no stone would be left unturned and no resources will be spared to find the people behind the murder.

Like Adrian Delia he was unwelcome at Caruana Galizia’s funeral and was on the receiving end of harsh criticism that he had undermined the rule of law. Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew, had also laid the blame for his mother’s death at Muscat’s feet.

But despite the demonstrations by the Civil Society Network and the bashing at the hands of MEPs, Muscat weathered the fallout.

The trust barometer published by MaltaToday last Sunday shows Muscat enjoying the highest results since becoming Prime Minister in 2013.

With his popularity at an all-time high, pressure will be mounting on Muscat not to relinquish the PL leadership in this legislature as he promised before the election.

Labour Party supporters and functionaries do not want Muscat to leave
Labour Party supporters and functionaries do not want Muscat to leave
PL supporters and insiders insist that Muscat should not quit when he still enjoys widespread trust. The brand he crafted delivered two emphatic victories, transformed the country and could still win the PL another general election, they contend.

Muscat will be listening to these growing voices within and outside the PL but all will depend on whether his ambition for a top European post can materialise.

 

Eyes on the stars

It is a known secret that Muscat has been eyeing a top post in the Union he once reviled.

His handling of the Maltese EU presidency positioned him to be a potential replacement for Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, when his term is up in 2019.

Joseph Muscat is eyeing Donald Tusk's (right) post at the helm of the European Council when it comes up for grabs in 2019
Joseph Muscat is eyeing Donald Tusk's (right) post at the helm of the European Council when it comes up for grabs in 2019
Earlier this year Muscat saved Tusk’s skin when Poland objected to his re-appointment at the helm of the council, in a move that earned the Prime Minister plaudits.

It appears that he has pencilled in his resignation for some time after the European Parliament elections in 18 months time.

However, Caruana Galizia’s murder has put a spanner in the works for Muscat’s European ambitions. Beppe Fenech Adami alluded to this in Parliament when he delivered an impassioned speech during a debate on the rule of law, calling on the Prime Minister to leave now.

Muscat knows that the murder of a journalist is not something that can be easily brushed off in the realm of European politics. But he also knows that European politics is about the power game played by the different political groupings, including the Socialists and Democrats, where he is a highly respected figure.

Whether Muscat can be convinced to change his mind and stay on still has to be seen but in line with his style nothing will be left to chance.

He has a year to put in place a succession plan that ensures the broad church he has gathered under the PL banner will be kept together. Whether that plan gets implemented in 2019 is solely up to him.

kurt_sansone
Kurt Sansone is Online Editor of www.maltatoday.com.mt. He was formerly deputy editor of ...