‘Continuity’ works both ways

For Abela did not merely promise ‘continuity’ of Joseph Muscat’s economic or social policies; he also promised ‘continuity’ of Labour’s recent trend of winning elections with unprecedented national majorities

I shall have to admit to being somewhat disappointed – though not exactly surprised – by Robert Abela’s win over Chris Fearne last weekend.

Not so much because I had particularly high hopes for the latter’s leadership; but Chris Fearne did at least have one significant advantage over his rival.

His name.

From a purely PR angle, it’s a goldmine. Just think of all the possibilities for headlines/slogans that will now go to waste forever: ‘Fear not: Fearne is here!’; ‘All is Fearne in love and war’… ‘Where angels Fearne to tread…’ and of course, what would be an obvious election slogan to any self-respecting campaign manager: ‘We have nothing to fear, but Fearne himself!’

Erm… wait, no, that wouldn’t do at all. But still, you get the point. ‘Chris Fearne’ has a certain ring to it. It possesses both instant aplomb, and also an in-built alliterative adaptability to almost any circumstance imaginable (in other words, I could have had ‘Fearne’ with it for years…)

Robert Abela, on the other hand… why, that could be almost anyone I ever shared a desk with at school. Call that name out loud on a busy street, anywhere in Malta, and I reckon at least 25 men (mostly lawyers… and yes, maybe a couple of former bodybuilders, too) would probably answer the summons.

Besides: you try coining a catchy slogan around that surname. I’ve been racking my brains at it all morning… and so far, ‘I’ve-a notta beena Abela’ to come up with anything at all (at least, nothing that doesn’t sound like Diego Abbatantuono in an episode of ‘Mind Your Language’…)

But that, I fear, is how politics tends to work in this country. When electing our leaders, we always seem to get side-tracked by such trivial considerations as what the candidates represent, or what they propose to actually do if elected. We never attach any importance to the only thing that truly matters: i.e., their marketability, on the local and international circuit.

Mind you: this also explains my lack of surprise at the outcome. For what did either candidate actually represent, at the end of the day? Chris Fearne positioned himself as a harbinger of ‘change’; Robert Abela, as the ‘continuity’ candidate.

And the decision was ultimately taken by a political party that had (or felt it had) no reason to even consider ‘changing’ for more than half a second. Why change a winning horse, anyway? Love him or hate him – and those seem to be the only two options: both taken to incredible extremes – Joseph Muscat brought about 10 consecutive electoral victories for the Labour Party: at general, local council and European levels.

So it was all along unlikely that victory would go to a candidate who promised to shake up the very foundations of that extraordinary, unprecedented electoral record… and above all, whose campaign seemed more geared towards appeasing the Opposition, in what is now a total, no-holds-barred political war.

And yet, had the option been available, we all know that the overwhelming majority would have voted to retain Joseph Muscat in spite of everything. So in the end, they voted for the next best thing.

Robert Abela: whose only campaign strategy was to simply pretend that there wasn’t even a leadership contest in the first place… that Joseph Muscat’s fall from grace was all along just an illusion; and that things could just go back to exactly where they left off a couple months ago… as if nothing of any real importance has even happened since then.

And I must concede that Robert Abela has already delivered spectacularly well on this promise of continuity. I closed my eyes at one point during his inaugural speech last Sunday… and it could just as easily have been Joseph Muscat I heard talking: the same tone of voice, the same style of delivery, the same keenness to reassure all the business community that… hey, don’t worry! We won’t let all this ‘good governance’ palaver get in the way of more important things in life… all the way down to the same old ‘inhobbkom’ soundbite: which was a straight echo of Muscat’s own inaugural speech as Labour leader, way back in 2008.

But while all that evidently worked wonders, with an audience of ecstatic Labour supporters who really wanted nothing more than for Joseph Muscat to stay on anyway… it might sit uneasily with the main thrust of Robert Abela’s own leadership campaign.

For Abela did not merely promise ‘continuity’ of Joseph Muscat’s economic or social policies; he also promised ‘continuity’ of Labour’s recent trend of winning elections with unprecedented national majorities.

And to deliver on that promise, Abela will have to somehow build on Joseph Muscat’s other, earlier political achievement: his ability to convince non-Labour voters to overcome their natural distrust of that party, and to vote for it 10 times on the trot.

Ironically, Muscat’s success in this department also hinged on his own, pre-2013 promise of ‘change’… which was not limited only to civil liberties (something Robert Abela has so far not alluded to at all), but also to issues of good governance.)

The experience of the past few months has brought home how little of this change has actually materialised in the past seven years.

Unlike the situation with gay rights or marriage equality, all those other promises of ‘transparency, accountability and meritocracy’ remain woefully unfulfilled… which also means that part of what made Joseph Muscat such an attractive option for first-time Labour voters, in both 2013 and 2017, is now no longer such a bankable commodity for the Labour Party.

Even before Muscat’s resignation, it was debatable whether he could continue relying on his past surplus of votes until the next election. Surveys had already begun to show a decline – evidence that the recent scandals had eaten into the PL’s previously unstoppable electoral advantage – and therefore, by extension, ‘continuity’ from Joseph Muscat also implies continuity of this very decline in support.

One of the most challenging tasks Abela will find himself facing, then, will be to somehow win those disillusioned supporters back before the next election; to convince them that the ‘alliance of progressives and moderates’ – a slogan which in itself suggests change – would still be worth voting for in 2020.

Can he realistically do this by sticking doggedly to a ‘continuity’ programme… when part of what he promises to ‘continue’ also includes what may have meanwhile pushed many of those voters away from Labour in disgust?

Obviously, it’s too early to tell… but then again, Robert Abela has so far not uttered a single word that can be interpreted as ‘reassurance’ to this particular category of voter (of the kind that he was only too happy to give to businessmen, hunters, trappers, etc: you know, all the categories which would probably end up voting Labour anyway).

To date, he has barely acknowledged that any governance problems even exist… still less committed himself to solve them. So it remains to be seen how Robert Abela intends to appeal to all who were once seduced by Muscat’s promises of ‘fairness’ in the distribution of wealth – the ones who turned Labour’s otherwise wafer-thin majority into an insurmountable electoral surplus – when not even Muscat himself was managing to keep up the momentum.

But ‘continuity’ may prove a difficult promise to keep for other reasons. By so casually glossing over the need for institutional reform, Robert Abela is unlikely to win any admirers in all the international fora that have been busy lambasting Malta’s institutions over the past few years: the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, GRECO, the international press, etc.

To continue with the Joseph Muscat approach is also to continue with policies that have earned Malta rebuke from all those quarters, and more. It will only intensify the pressure on Abela’s government to implement (inter alia) the recommendations of the Venice Commission… and above all, to take action against the public figures who have been outed as corrupt over the Electrogas deal.

The sight of Robert Abela embracing Konrad Mizzi at last Sunday’s event - and the rousing applause with which it was received - did little to encourage any serious prospect of the latter.

But to be fair, this is also the same Robert Abela who so elegantly described Keith Schembri as a ‘kurnut’ at a recent Cabinet meeting… so you never know: some ‘change’ may be on the horizon after all.

Either way, my guess is that Robert Abela will soon realise that his own promise of ‘continuity’ is at odds with his commitment to rebuild the lost confidence in Labour; and that – if he also intends to ‘continue’ his party’s past string of electoral successes – he will have to do more than just put on a faithful (and eerily accurate) impersonation of Joseph Muscat.

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