‘Continuity’ and ‘change’ can’t both happen at the same time…

One thing, however, is certain: ‘continuity’ and ‘change’ cannot realistically co-exist for very long. Sooner or later… and my guess is sooner… Robert Abela is going have to decide, once and for all, which of those directions he really intends to take

Did you hear that noise? No, I have no idea what caused it either… but it sure sounded a lot like the first rumblings of dissent within the Labour Party, after its election of a new leader last month.

Mind you: it could also have been Robert Abela breaking the sound barrier, with what must go down as the single fastest U-turn in Malta’s entire political history. Less than 24 hours after nominating Konrad Mizzi to head a delegation to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (of all bloody things), government found itself having to sheepishly withdraw the nomination, after what should have really been a very predictable public outcry.

In so doing, Robert Abela also handed the Parliamentary Opposition a minor (and somewhat rare) victory: for the decision was reversed almost immediately after Nationalist MPs called for a division in the House: imparting the impression that – for once – the Opposition had succeeded in dictating the government’s agenda.

In all the years I’ve been following local politics, I don’t think I have ever seen a government conceding defeat so suddenly and so emphatically (on any issue, ever). And I have to admit it perplexes me slightly: for the simple reason that Robert Abela – no matter how green or inexperienced - must surely have been aware that his decision to nominate Mizzi would precipitate precisely that sort of backlash.  

This is, after all, the same Konrad Mizzi outed by the Panama Papers leak in 2016: and who, alongside Keith Schembri (and also Joseph Muscat, who defended both) has been the primary focus of all the local and foreign opprobrium heaped onto our country for the past three years. So to even consider him for a delegation to an OSCE meeting, is to enthusiastically wave a red rag in front of a snorting bull.

To my mind, then, it is utterly inconceivable that Robert Abela would have taken a decision of that magnitude without foreseeing at least a little public resistance. He must have known full well that the Opposition would vociferously object; and that the NGOs behind all the recent protests would immediately claim that ‘nothing had changed at all’ (despite early indications of promise).

I can only conclude, then, that Abela chose Mizzi deliberately to provoke that very reaction. But this merely raises the question of why he would go on to rescind the same decision so quickly. Was that, too, part of some grand, elaborate political strategy that we’re all too stupid to fully understand? Or was it a change of plan forced upon Robert Abela by unforeseen circumstances… and if so: what circumstances, exactly?

I’m not too sure myself; but from where I’m sitting, the conundrum seems entirely consistent with all the other, earlier U-turns Robert Abela has already performed since becoming prime minister three weeks ago: the way he first promised ‘continuity’ from the Muscat administration… only to reshuffle his Cabinet beyond recognition, and then terminate pretty much all the controversial public positions appointed by is predecessor (even though he had previously suggested he would retain at least a few).

There has, in fact, been precious little sign of the ‘continuity’ promised by Robert Abela in the leadership campaign… and this must have placed the new prime minister in a slightly awkward position, among those Labour Party delegates who had elected him specifically on that promise.

I might, of course, be going out on a limb here: but my own reading of Mizzi’s appointment is that it was a belated sop to this particular faction within the party; the militant diehards who still view Konrad Mizzi as a major asset to both party and country (all the more so for having ‘survived’ so many attacks by Opposition forces)… and who, in any case, had cheered wildly at the sight of Abela embracing the former tourism minister at his inauguration ceremony last month.

From this perspective, the move can even be seen as a cunning political strategy: because up to a point, Robert Abela still needs to put up a fight for the benefit of his own party faithful.

As we all know from past political experience (Konrad Mizzi is himself a very good example of this), nothing boosts a politician’s grassroots popularity more than a good old-fashioned punch up with the Opposition.

This is in fact how Malta’s inherently tribalist political mindset has always worked: antagonism between parties is generally viewed as a good thing, because it can be used to instantly galvanize support from within.

And Abela needs to shore up support at the moment: if nothing else, for the benefit of those among his own supporters who think he may be going too far in his efforts to mollify detractors.

There is, in brief, a lot to be gained by Abela in picking a fight with the Nationalist Party (and civil society) at this particular juncture in time. In fact, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if the whole idea behind Mizzi’s nomination was precisely to instigate further protests against his own government: thus giving Abela a chance to demonstrate his own prowess on the political battlefield, to the ecstatic applause of his home crowd.

If my theory is correct, however… it would mean that ‘something’ forced Abela to back out of a fight he fully intended to start. And for obvious reasons, that ‘something’ cannot have come from either the Nationalist Party or its related pressure groups.

Realistically speaking, it can only have come from ‘the inside’… which in turn explains why the rumblings we heard this week sounded so much like the beginnings of an internal divide within the Labour Party: a schism, between those who still secretly support Joseph Muscat (and, by extension, Konrad Mizzi); and those who hold the preceding administration directly responsible for the embarrassing situation the Labour government has been reduced to... and who fully expect Abela to take whatever action is necessary to regain their trust.

There is already evidence of the latter’s existence (mostly in the form of disappointed or outraged reactions on social media, coming from people known to be aligned with Labour)… but what we don’t really know is the extent to which their sentiments are shared among the wider Labour electorate.

I’m guessing that Robert Abela didn’t know that detail either (and it is very obviously in his own interest to find out, as quickly as possible). This might explain why he might also have been tempted to ‘test the waters’. In fact, his otherwise bizarre decision to nominate Konrad Mizzi only makes sense when viewed as a stratagem to gauge the precise mood among Labour’s own party rank and file.

And who knows? Had the nomination gone down smoothly with PL supporters… it may even have been a prelude to a more permanent form of ‘rehabilitation’ for the beleaguered Mizzi in future.

Evidently, however, it didn’t go down well at all. As we all saw, Abela was forced to publicly backtrack within hours… and not by the Opposition, or by the threat of further protests in the streets. No, it would appear that Abela tried to test the precise extent of his own authority as both prime minister and party leader… and got slightly more than he bargained for by way of an answer.

Either way, the faux pas leaves the prime minister in the unenviable position of having to somehow plaster over the cracks now opening up within his own support-base. And if the situation sounds familiar, it’s because this has all happened before.

Almost exactly the same process has already unfolded twice within the Nationalist Party: first when Gonzi took over from Eddie Fenech Adami in 2004, and later – even more emphatically – when Adrian Delia became party leader in 2017.

Like both those party leaders, Robert Abela will also soon discover (if he hasn’t already) that there are limits to how long the opposing forces of ‘change’ and ‘continuity’ can be forced to co-exist… before the party is eventually torn apart in opposite directions.

To be fair, he still has plenty of time to experiment… and who knows? Maybe eventually even get the balance right. For the moment, however, the early days of Robert Abela’s reign seem to indicate that he is still entirely at the mercy of internecine forces – torn between the party-political need to fire up his own audience, and the over-arching national imperative to ‘clean up the mess’ left by his immediate predecessor – and not yet entirely sure of how to handle the two-headed monster he has inherited.

One thing, however, is certain: ‘continuity’ and ‘change’ cannot realistically co-exist for very long. Sooner or later… and my guess is sooner… Robert Abela is going have to decide, once and for all, which of those directions he really intends to take.

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