The ghosts haunting Abela and Grech

Malta’s electorate has never been surer of who the winner of this year’s election will be

Malta’s great electoral year starts in 2022 and it finds an electorate that has never been surer of who the winner of this year’s election will be.

Ever since Labour delivered its first super-majority in 2013, winning a snap election overshadowed by unprecedented accusations of corruption in 2017, incoming prime minister Robert Abela has managed to ride a multitude of waves since taking office in early 2020.

First it was the legacy of his disgraced predecessor (whom he previously served as a Cabinet advisor), which he started addressing with cosmetic and other substantial touches – a restoration of the Caruana Galizia shrine, the replacement of the Commissioner of Police with an inspiring candidate, the sacking of Konrad Mizzi, and seemingly dispassionate moves to force resignations, introduce technocrats, and leave errant MPs out in the cold.

Secondly, it was the COVID pandemic, where Abela’s temptations to cave in to populist whims were thankfully tempered by Chris Fearne’s scientific advice and a national reverence for the medical establishment.

All throughout, Abela has convincingly retained the stratospheric trust highs Labour leaders have grown accustomed to. His Nationalist adversary, though cut from the cloth of his party’s attraction to ‘Mondeo man’ and committed to place the PN on a higher ideological plane, has failed to inspire.

That has left Abela vying only with the ghost of Joseph Muscat – severing allies like Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Edward Scicluna, minor MPs who were replaced with co-opted technocrats and new faces; his elastic ethical yardstick leaving errant MPs to face the pressure of public indignation on their own; using liberal reforms to keep the PN exposed on both its left and right flanks... Abela too can aim for a 40,000-vote super-majority. And if he does, will he have exorcised the spectre of the man who recently toyed with a vengeful return to politics? What happens then once the ‘Abela era’ takes off; what happens to the political conspiracy Muscat and cronies like Keith Schembri created?

It sounds shocking to consider that Malta’s next five-year administration, in a time of rising gas prices, inflationary fears, and increasing pressures on wages, could once again be faced with an ineffectual Opposition. Bernard Grech has been a cautious leader of a fractious PN, whose divide between reformists and establishmentarians is a headache for its leader – old-timers fear bold moves that displace their influential hold, and the PN’s totemic worship of conservatism prevents it from reading the signs sent to its by its electorate.

It takes a kind of charismatic leader to force such bold changes.

Even here, Bernard Grech is not without his a shadow ‘nemesis’. While he struggles to convince and bring floaters and Labour voters into the promise of a new way of doing government, or to at least chip away at the trust Abela has managed to command, far off in Brussels a star that some believe is ideal for the PN leadership, has made her own mark.

With Roberta Metsola as European Parliament president, a stellar career inside the European institutions beckons. Many will nurture the hope that Metsola can one day convert her star quality in Brussels, into the charisma that is required of a Nationalist prime-minister-to-be. Chances that Metsola will be convinced to hang up her EU dream so early in the day to lead the PN into yet another five years of trying to surmount its trust deficit, however, seem low.

Even Grech is, ironically, a victim of this kind of success: the PN’s great white hope, apparently not motivated to chance the party leadership, is away in Brussels enjoying the fruits of her successful political career.

This mirage of what a successful kind of PN leader could look like – liberal, female, successful – will haunt any PN leader. Of course, success in Brussels is no guarantee of the same in Malta. But this chimeric reference point for an election-winning leader, just like Muscat did for Labour in 2009, will always be present unless the PN leader’s charisma can start chipping away at Labour’s hegemonic success. Until then, its captains will be victims of comparison, unfairly perhaps.