Muscat’s stadium-filler farewell concert left voters thirsting for more. Abela won easily

The Grinch who stole Christmas and the Labour leadership...

In 2008, with Labour in tatters from an election in which Lawrence Gonzi snatched from the jaws of defeat by just 1,500 votes, Joseph Muscat came forward with a winning formula. Liberal, business-savvy, a European outlook cut from his MEP years that had since exorcised his Santian eurosceptism, he easily saw off George Abela, the former Labour deputy leader who jumped ship before the 1998 snap election Labour lost. 

Abela, a former MFA president, protested then that nobody in that leadership election had won the fair-play trophy. 

The dynasty of the former President of the Republic (he was installed there by Gonzi himself, ostensibly because he thought the inexperienced Muscat should be allowed to falter without Abela’s hindrance... a costly gamble as history shows us) is now in the seat of Malta’s power. 

At 42, Robert Abela, a Labour MP and lawyer who has benefited from unprecedented government largesse from well before 2013 with a lucrative retainer in Malta’s most maligned regulator, the PA, is Malta’s prime minister. 

He has won a Labour leadership election announced in December by Joseph Muscat, whose chief of staff Keith Schembri resigned after his secret business partner Yorgen Fenech was arrested on suspicion of being the mastermind behind the Caruana Galizia assassination. Together, Fenech and Schembri are alleged to have crafted a secret offshore network to channel millions from Fenech’s 17 Black company in Dubai to Schembri’s Panama company. All this had been reported by Caruana Galizia herself. 

But this election has been little about policy and Labour’s soul, and more about how to replace Muscat’s redoubtable and influential presence inside Castille. 

His deputy PM, the health minister Chris Fearne had been campaigning for the top post for almost two years, taking out expensive magazine cover shoots and spending thousands in Facebook ads over the last week

The paediatric surgeon promised “no nonsense and discipline” in his statesman-like bid to recalibrate Malta’s damaged reputation inside Brussels in the aftermath of Muscat’s resignation and his corruption-stained administration. He ran as the prime ministerial heir apparent, but lost.

Abela proved to be shrewder. By appealing to the Labour base instead of the nation – he even avoided interviews with the media in some cases, clearly rattling the entitled fourth estate to the delight of his base – Abela imparted a strong message: he was Labour’s man, not easily moved by the umbrage of European counterparts and their condescension. In many ways, this was classic Muscat, the man he had served as consultant in his Cabinet. 

To go by the telling Facebook posts of Keith Schembri’s unofficial aide Neville Gafà and the former prime minister’s driver, it is evident that those close enough to the Muscat clan wanted Abela to succeed. After all, inside Castille, Fearne’s ambition was viewed with disdain, and his eagerness to supplant Muscat the minute he exits was proof of the surgeon’s haughtiness. Even his ill-advised jibe to invite Abela to his victory party during the debate on One, was an uncomfortable reminder of his deep desire to be PM. 

How far the Muscat clan deliberately influenced the vote is a moot point at this stage. But he overshadowed proceedings, making it hard for his successors to sufficiently distance themselves from him. He toured the Labour clubs to wave goodbye, and promised to stay on as a backbencher... the neutered Labour contest was a personality contest built on empty concepts of ‘unity’, rather than a real clash of honest ideas.

Suffice it to say that Muscat’s stellar performance on Friday evening at the Kordin sports complex, a farewell concert worthy of the Rolling Stone he turned out to be for Labour voters, was a strong message in itself: did the average Labour voter, thirsting for an encore and more chart-topping hits, wanted to settle for the austere sounding Chris Fearne and his promise of ‘no nonsense and discipline’?

It fell to the skilful orator Robert Abela to assume the Muscat mantle, and the results of this election clearly show that Labour voters replicated their winning formula (how successful, is yet to be seen) by picking the young, square-jawed former body-builder with his beautiful wife (she will turn heads all over Europe...) and their cute daughter. 

We also need to understand that the Labour Party has historically provided safe haven to Malta’s working class and its upwardly mobile offspring against the demonisation of the Catholic Church, its presumed allies in the business and professional classes, and all forms of external influence – be it Brussels, or migrants making claims on national resources. Muscat knew this historical base intimately, and worked out of this base to reach new niches and self-interest groups.

But Fearne’s technocratic entitlement to the job of Labour leader and prime minister rubbed the party’s voters the wrong way. This result shows us what Labour voters have been doing since 2013: voting out elites, even though ironically, installing Muscat’s napoleonic regime in the process.