Death of the Republic

The legitimacy of the Muscat administration, inherited by Robert Abela, is now imperilled and has become toxic

It is ironic – to say the least – that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s lofty calls for a ‘Second Republic’ may indeed materialise: but only because his own toxic legacy now threatens to destroy the first one.

In 2013, Muscat actively toyed with the idea of a Constitutional convention, whose far-reaching reforms would usher in a ‘second republic’. The convention was stalled by the Nationalist Party’s boisterous refusal to tag along. But still, Muscat’s ambition was already being parlayed into his legacy… albeit without any major epochal event to warrant the rebirth of Malta’s political state.

At that point, there had been no judicial wipe-out of the political class to signify the passage from one republic to the next. Nor did the much-needed and long delayed reforms require the semblance of an epochal earthquake, simply because the country had seen a change in government after 25 years of Nationalist administration.

But the events which have rocked the Maltese political state ever since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, have now set that train firmly in motion.

It is hard to map out the next stations this train will be coming into, or even its final destination. But the pardon granted to one of the Caruana Galizia hitmen, and the subsequent arrests of an alleged ‘mafia’ gang – together with the revelations of the other two hitmen who claim inside knowledge of a former minister’s role in the Daphne plot – are all clear signs of a political earthquake yet to come.

It might not be the ‘earthquake of change’ Joseph Muscat had in mind, when he made that ill-fated political promise in 2013. But the events we have witnessed in recent years all point in the same direction: the political structures we have inherited since Independence are now in danger of collapsing.

For Labour voters, and party insiders, the events of the week cannot be simply brushed aside by cavalier speeches the likes of which we saw in the House this week. A budget implementation vote this week was taken up by the Nationalist opposition’s hammering of a Labour administration which has yet to reckon with the alleged corruption of the once-powerful Keith Schembri; and the inaction – deliberate or otherwise – of Joseph Muscat.

Labour MPs and ministers predictably defended their government’s record; but even with the litany of government triumphs and Nationalist shortcomings they threw at the Opposition this week, it will not shake off the national feeling of dread at the imminent revelation of earth-shattering facts.

The legitimacy of the Muscat administration, inherited by Robert Abela, is now imperilled and has become toxic.

The chief architect of Muscat’s electoral victories is facing charges of corruption; his facilitators in finance could hold the key to secrets that will shake the administration to its core; and the main suspects in the Caruana Galizia assassination are now claiming a political hand in the journalist’s murder.

If true, then this really is a mafia state. And the death of the first republic.

This places Prime Minister Abela in a quandary. He has certainly presided over the country’s most serious prosecutions to date, on subjects which deal with the most heinous accusations against the Muscat administration he was bequeathed.

He now walks a tight-rope which requires him to work zealously – not just to maintain the normality of a rule-abiding state – but also to avoid a chaotic grey-listing of Malta’s financial jurisdiction by Moneyval.

At the same time, Abela must shore up Labour support for his leadership and reforms, not least under pressure of an Opposition reinvigorated by the latest revelations.

But the legacy of the Muscat administration, coupled with the Chinese torture of the unfolding revelations, will no doubt increase the temptation of the PM to call an election.

The timing is certainly not propitious, because of both the COVID pandemic, and also the fact that we are now in an extension of the political crisis of December 2019.  But there is no doubt that this country will need a political airing-out – whether for Abela to assume legitimacy as an elected Labour prime minister (should the next election favour him so) or for a democratic re-balancing of voters – and for this to happen, the present administration must seek a renewed electoral mandate.

But this, in itself, will only address the question of Abela’s own legitimacy. To begin the longer-term healing process, we may also end up having to rebuild a Republic that is currently being demolished by the Muscat legacy.