Let it all come down…

Muscat’s prolonged tenure as prime minister is not only untenable; but also stands in the way of the full truth coming out. By his own earlier promise to ‘leave no stone unturned’, Joseph Muscat must now bite the bullet and step down

I feel it’s only fair to point out that, by the time I finish writing this (and even more so, by the time it comes out in print) the lie of the land will already have changed beyond recognition.

It is now Tuesday at 11am. Keith Schembri has just resigned, and is being interrogated as I write. Joseph Muscat has just reiterated his determination to stay on as prime minister. And no formal charges have been pressed against any of the suspects involved… though that may now be a matter of minutes.

Either way, on the basis of everything that has happened so far, there is enough evidence to indicate that Malta is in the grips of an unprecedented political crisis – involving not just the present government, but Malta’s political system as a whole - and as such, things cannot carry on as they are for very much longer.

Up until Monday, Joseph Muscat could (and did) argue that the developments to date did not amount to any political responsibility to be borne directly by himself; and also that the national interest demanded that he stay on as prime minister… at least, until all the facts of the case emerge.

Today, he can make neither argument. With Keith Schembri now officially a suspect in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation, Joseph Muscat is only an arms’ length away from being investigated himself.

Moreover, any further arrests may depend on the question of whether Yorgen Fenech is offered a Presidential pardon, like Melvin Theuma before him.

It is one thing for Joseph Muscat to do so in the case of a middleman who would implicate Yorgen Fenech. But to offer a pardon to Fenech, in order to implicate his own former Chief of Staff (and close personal friend)… that is something else altogether.

Nor does it help that Economy Minister Chris Cardona (but not, so far, Konrad Mizzi) has also been questioned on the basis of Fenech’s interrogation. Without in any way impinging on the presumption of innocence: there are, quite frankly, too many ‘highly-placed government officials’ being considered as ‘special interest subjects’ in this particular investigation.

Clearly, then, Muscat’s prolonged tenure as prime minister is not only untenable; but also stands in the way of the full truth coming out. By his own earlier promise to ‘leave no stone unturned’, Joseph Muscat must now bite the bullet and step down: if nothing else, to allow the investigation to run its full course unimpeded.

Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the extent (if any) of the prime minister’s own involvement in proceedings. Other politicians before Muscat have stepped down to clear their own names – Charles Mangion and Chris Said, to name one example from either side.

In this case, Muscat’s resignation is warranted not because of any direct involvement on his own part – though who knows? This may yet change, too -  but because the country simply cannot function in a state of normality right now. It’s a bitter pill for Muscat’s many admirers to swallow… but like most bitter pills, one must swallow it for the sake of the health of the nation as a whole.

Admittedly, however, there seems to be no precedent to dictate the proper procedure in such cases. My guess is that Muscat would have to appoint a care-taker prime minister in his stead, at least until the next election… but this only raises questions about whether any of the Labour parliamentary group can take over the reins: seeing as they all supported Muscat in defending Mizzi and Schembri when it came to a confidence vote in Parliament.

One might consider the idea of co-opting an outsider for the role of interin prime minister… as Mintoff had done with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici back in 1984. But in a sense, this is all superfluous: for the reality is that Muscat has so far indicated that he has no intention of stepping down at all. And he has been given blanket approval by his Parliamentary group: suggesting that he would easily win another confidence vote in the House, of the kind that the Opposition has been demanding since Friday.

There is no precedent for this situation either: raising procedural questions as to how (if at all) we can possibly move beyond the stage we are at right now.

Right: I’ll stop there about the immediate implications, because… for all I know, there may be other developments in this area in the next few hours. And besides, Muscat is not the only obstacle to the truth coming out; and nor would his own removal resolve the full extent of the malaise lying beneath the rot.

There still is far too much speculation surrounding the few facts that we do know about. For instance: too many people are still failing to distinguish between ‘being questioned by the police’ and ‘being charged with a crime’.

Last night, it was reported that several other individuals beyond Schembri and Cardona have also been called in for questioning. By the following morning, I’d already heard rumours that other people – unrelated to the whole Yorgen Fenech/Keith Schembri connection – were about to be arrested for their part in Daphne’s murder.

But to be called in for questioning, at this stage, does not necessarily mean ‘to be a suspected mastermind’. Some might have been questioned to gather additional evidence against known suspects; some may even have been interrogated over other crimes that are also in the process of being unravelled as we speak… other car-bombs, other money-laundering cases, and maybe other things nobody yet suspects.

I know that a lot of people out there also can’t distinguish between ‘waiting for all the facts to emerge’, and ‘being complicit in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia’… but what can I say, beyond what I’ve been saying from day one? Those people are wrong. We still do not have a full picture of the true facts of the case. There may yet be twists and turns none of us can predict.

Having said that, there are certainly predictions that can safely be made with the information that we do have. Whether or not Yorgen Fenech is granted a pardon, he is unlikely to assume full responsibility for a crime that almost certainly involved others. And having presided for so long over such a cosy relationship between political parties and big business… he will no doubt have a lot of beans to spill (and not just in connection with Daphne’s murder).

That’s the thing with Houses of Cards, you know. It’s not just the Ace of Spades or the King of Hearts that come tumbling down in the end: all the other suits and Jokers tend to also come tumbling down with them.

Even without such added information, however, there is already enough evidence to hang the entire political system, lock stock and barrel. It can now safely be said that Daphne Cauana Galizia was murdered for trying to unravel at least one pillar of this rotten, crumbling edifice; she was, in part, a victim of Malta’s entire political-industrial complex.

No amount of resignations will atone for the extent of that ghastly crime. It would have to take a reboot of the entire system to even come close.
So while it may seem like a small matter, in the great upheavals we are now going through: that Constitutional overhaul we’ve been talking about so long has never been more relevant or urgent.

By the end of this week, there is a fair chance that the entire Maltese industrial/political landscape may need rewriting. To pick just one area at random: the system governing Presidential pardons (and even that we call them that, when the President has no real say in the matter) now clearly has to change.

It was all along unconscionable that immunity from prosecution can only ever be granted at the discretion of the prime minister; and this was already evident from previous cases where the mechanism served only to botch the prosecution.

The sheer proximity of today’s prime minister with the core of the ongoing murder investigation, which now extends tohis own right-hand man… that makes the whole setup just that much more unacceptable.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is now painfully apparent that the Party Financing Act has not been enough to iron out the symbiosis we all know exists between politics and business. And for this, we also have Malta’s flawed electoral system to blame.

Any system in which voters directly elect candidates to Parliament -as opposed to voting for parties which form their own candidate lists - is bound to generate a culture of political nepotism; it creates an acceptance and even expectation of corruption… thus, up to a point, making the entire electorate complicit in the regulat back-scratching exercise we call ‘general elections’.

These are all deeply ingrained cultural realities that we must now work to reform, before they destroy what little is left of our country’s institutions. So while the criminal investigation may now be drawing to a close… something tells me the real clean-up job has yet to begin in earnest.  

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