A Maltese ‘Tangentopoli’, in the making

Whether this realisation will be enough to consign, once and for all, the Muscat era to the dustbin of history, is both debatable and, perhaps, irrelevant

Often, comparisons have been made between the situation that has unfolded in Malta over the past five years – characterised by a series of ever-worsening revelations about the corrupt dealings of the Joseph Muscat administration – and Italy’s ‘Tangentopoli’ scandal in the early 1990s.

Admittedly, the two scenarios may not be entirely interchangeable. Such was the public opprobrium over Tangentopoli, for instance, that Italian premier Bettino Craxi ended up forced to flee his country altogether; only to eventually end his life in Tunisian exile.

Muscat, too, has been symbolically ‘exiled’, in certain ways. But unlike Craxi, he managed to weather the storm for just under three years, following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia – or four years, if you start counting from the Panama Papers scandal in 2016 – and while his reputation now lies in tatters, he still arguably retains some of his former appeal among the more die-hard Labour voters.

But as pressure begins to mount on Prime Minister Robert Abela to formally denounce his predecessor… the extent of that continued support remains debatable. Truth be told, the latest developments seem to have stunned even Muscat’s most ardent admirers into apparent silence.

Not only has the arrest and arraignment of Keith Schembri – even if only for one, specific corruption charge – fired a torpedo into the defences of all those who argued that the former OPM chief of staff was the victim of baseless allegations; but the identification of the ownership of MacBridge – and with it, a panorama of the scale of corruption, in the energy sector alone, stretching all the way to China – has finally brought home the sheer magnitude of the crisis currently gripping this country.

Whether this realisation will be enough to consign, once and for all, the Muscat era to the dustbin of history, is both debatable and, perhaps, irrelevant. But placed in the context of a seemingly never-ending litany of graft and corruption cases, arising from all sorts of different government contracts: the Shanghai-Electrogas deal, the Montenegro windfarm, the sale of three Maltese hospitals to Vitals (and subsequently Steward healthcare)… what emerges in a painfully clear pattern.

Practically every single contract that emanated from Castille after 2013, it seems, was somehow entangled in the tentacles of a corrupt cabal, that had clearly hijacked the country’s organs for its own gain. And at this point, any further appeals to other aspects of the Muscat legacy – his reforms in civil liberties, for instance; or improvements in social welfare – become rather redundant.

It is from this perspective that the situation most resembles Italy’s seminal Tangentopoli moment: then and now, there was a belated realisation of the sheer scale of the corruption that eaten away into the fabric of the nation… causing untold, irreparable damage to our country’s reputation.

It is, sadly, no longer misplaced, or in any way exaggerated, to make that comparison: we really are living through Malta’s Tangentopoli moment. This really is Bribesville, acting itself out for all to see.

One therefore assumes that the consequences, too, should be as drastic and far-reaching as that distant Italian corruption scandal. For while Italy may not have ‘eradicated corruption’ – or still less, the Mafia – as a result of any reforms undertaken after Tangentopoli…  there certainly was a drive (above all, in politics) to ensure that structures were put in place to avoid a repetition of that scandal in future.

This, it seems, is the point Malta has now reached. Apart from any criminal action to be taken against the suspects – and ideally, ALL the suspects – in those corruption cases, we must also address the structural reforms that will be required to heal our country’’s institutional wounds.

The revelations coming out of the numerous public inquiries and testimonies are already enough to require government to carry out a serious review of all contracts signed in the past eight years; and in those instances where the contracts were vitiated, the review should determine (at minimum) if there is scope to recover any public funds that may have been misused.

In extreme cases, government should also determine if there is scope for certain contracts to be rescinded altogether: starting with Electrogas, which binds the country for a total of 18 years.

But none of this can be achieved, if our only reaction is to simply replace the political guard, without also replacing all the structures which made this State-capture possible in the first place.

This, too, is why it is so important for today’s government to bite the bullet, and acknowledge the reality of the festering corruption between 2013, and 2020.