The election that never was

Robert Abela kept the Nationalist Party guessing, forcing it into premature election mode, already taxing on its limited resources

File Photo
File Photo

Cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries left Castille at the end of Monday’s customary Cabinet meeting still unsure whether Prime Minister Robert Abela would call a snap election.

With Labour’s leadership toying with a rumour of an impending election for November 2021, not even Labour’s top-flight ministers were sure whether Abela was actually considering going to the polls right on the eve of the Christmas season.

With speculation of an announcement on or a week after Budget Day, Abela’s silence on the Sunday ‘sermon’ following his Budget speech on 18 October still left ministers guessing.

Their answer would only come on Monday evening, when the PM announced at a press conference while on a visit to a manufacturing plant, that he would not be calling an election.

But the PM’s unconventional approach left many confused on how to interpret his unwillingness to put paid to the election speculation which the Nationalist Party itself drummed up back in August, in a bid to fire up its party faithful.

Abela kept all cards to himself save one or two close aides, while blaming the PN for creating election fever in a radio interview yesterday. Yet the Labour leader knew that his own ministers had been eager to do their constituency rounds, seeing his high rating at the polls, as Polar surveys commissioned by MaltaToday have constantly shown.

It was always common wisdom that an election so late in the year disrupts the Christmas shopping period (already in full swing throughout end-November), something the government would not have been too keen to do after two years of COVID-19 disruptions that the retail sector has had to endure. Yet early in the day Abela did not rule out the unlikely prospect, for example by holding the Budget much later in October: instead he kept the PN guessing, forcing it into premature election mode, already taxing on its limited resources. He wanted their arsenal depleted before the real campaign starts.

Yet so were his ministers galvanised into action, and Labour candidates were firing their social media visibility campaigns into action, as evidence through numerous sponsored posts by various newcomers hoping to get a first taste of the ‘Abela effect’ on the next election’s crop of MPs.

One wonders at the sagacity of having the Office of the Prime Minister seemingly distant from the operations of its own party, when top ministers themselves were unable to decipher the wishes of their own leader.

Advisors to Abela have also mapped out various challenges on his electoral options. 2022 could present the Labour leader new challenges: a slowdown in the construction industry, the shrinking revenues from the golden passport scheme, the effects of the FATF greylisting on the banking and financial services industries finally sinking in, energy and fuel price hikes, the losses at Air Malta and the major headache with Steward Healthcare.

Abela also knows that a convincing win at the next general election could give him a newfound authority for a break from the Muscat era to allow him make some important changes: new ministers inside a small Cabinet, and the licence to dislodge his executive from the Muscat legacy. It is a prospect that should be treated with trepidation by the electorate: an invincible Labour Party in government raises questions about the way parties-in-government can remain in power without strict checks and balances to prevent them from manufacturing consent with decisions that may not be in the public interest or that of future generations. It also raises questions on how the PN is failing to be a successful opposition party, despite becoming certainly more propositive in recent months under Bernard Grech.

Abela next year will be invested with difficulties on the future of Air Malta, where advisors have mooted the possibility of ‘re-opening’ Air Malta as a new airline under a completely restructured format. Abela has been told by advisors he should take a lead in negotiations with Brussels over state aid in order to prevent the closure of the airline.

He then must take a decision over the future of Steward Healthcare: either accept their demands for a renegotiated contract, or end another part of the Muscat legacy with a €125 million bill for taxpayers – of which €25 million are a government guarantee issued to Maltese banks.

Abela thinks the PN will just be in a stretched-out campaigning mode, distracting it from its own, much-needed reforms to become a credible alternative. He certainly wanted their arsenal depleted before the real campaign starts. Talk of an imminent election has a clear impact on the Opposition, with PN leader Bernard Grech using his speech in parliament to unveil his own electoral proposals. It remains to be seen whether the PN has used all its policy ammunition or whether it has kept some proposals for the campaign itself.

An eternal optimist, Abela thinks that with COVID-19 out of the way and a luckless Opposition, his trust ratings can only improve with a geared-up economy. But his litmus test might yet be that of obtaining an electoral victory far greater than Labour’s 2017 record. It’s a risk that is based on the premise that the campaign itself will not change voting intentions. In Malta, that’s always an extremely unlikely prospect. But any eleventh-hour erosion of support will thwart Abela’s bid to outdo his predecessor in terms of winning big.