Abela risks being dragged down by Muscat’s legacy

Were it not for the extraordinary circumstances we are currently living in, Robert Abela would surely be facing difficult, uncomfortable questions about the long shadow cast by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

There can be no doubt that Prime Minister Robert Abela has had a difficult first year in office.

Just two months into his term, he was confronted by arguably the most serious crisis any Maltese prime minister has ever had to face: the COVID-19 pandemic, which – in terms of both public health and economy – has wrought havoc with the government’s human and financial resources.

It is only fair to acknowledge, then, that the difficulties he has faced so far, were well in excess of those facing any previous administration.

On another level, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it certain ‘advantages’ for the government, and for Robert Abela in particular. With so much public attention automatically diverted towards the latest health updates, Abela’s government has so far been spared the intense scrutiny that would otherwise be warranted: given the shocking revelations now emerging from the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder inquiry.

Were it not for the extraordinary circumstances we are currently living in, Abela would surely be facing difficult, uncomfortable questions about the long shadow cast by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on his administration: a shadow that Abela is clearly finding hard to dispel.

For instance: the Prime Minister’s reaction to Muscat’s recent interrogation, at the hands of the police, reveals the extent of his predecessor’s enduring influence.

“Joseph Muscat occupies no role in this government,” Abela said, when asked if Muscat’s position as a Labour MP was still tenable. “He is just an MP elected by the people. I am following these developments… his questioning by police… he is not being investigated over any crime. Naturally decisions will be taken if changes happen. I will take any decision, no matter how difficult, in the best interest of the country.”

This reply is problematic, in part because it simply doesn’t answer the question itself. The fact that Muscat was questioned in connection with a (previously secret) WhatsApp chat with Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech himself – the alleged mastermind behind the murder – has clear and obvious political ramifications. In any other country, and at any other time, Joseph Muscat’s position as a Labour MP would be considered anything but ‘tenable’, in light of this revelation.

Besides: Abela is simply incorrect to state that Muscat was ‘not being investigated over any crime’. He was indeed called in for questioning in connection with a crime – the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which also shocked and destabilised the entire country – and moreover, he was questioned ‘under caution’: a legal term which implies that anything Muscat said to the police, might later be used as evidence against him.

Abela cannot therefore so easily sidestep the question. The continued presence of Joseph Muscat, within the ranks of the Labour Party, can only undermine his own credibility in the long term.

But there are also political considerations. For all intents and purposes, this administration is as much Muscat’s as it is Abela’s: the people elected in 2017 and serving in Abela’s Cabinet are all part of Muscat’s legacy; and the government’s ‘business as usual’ approach, after the December crisis that forced Muscat’s resignation, suggests that it remains the same government elected to power in 2017.

And this legacy is problematic, even for reasons unconnected with the recent revelations. Abela may look back at the historic victories of the Labour government in 2013 and 2017, but there is a dark cloud hanging over major decisions taken back in those years: Electrogas, Vitals, the Mozura wind energy park...

Coupled with all the revelations in the public inquiry and the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech, they all illustrating a poisonous centre of power inside Castille, that took hold deeply in 2013.

Even Abela’s victory in the Labour election owes itself to Joseph Muscat’s silent campaign to have his former Cabinet consultant installed as party leader.

So when Abela gives the press a legalistic answer as to Muscat’s questioning by police, he is not answering to the real implications: i.e., that - unless Abela places a defining stamp, on both the Labour Party and the government, of what his own vision is - his administration will remain marked by Muscat’s legacy and its subservience to Muscat.

Sooner or later, however, Abela will have to make that effort to distance himself from his predecessor… or else, run the risk of being dragged down with him.