Robert Abela faces a stark choice

Abela should remember that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’; and current non-voters may eventually move on to new political pastures. At this stage, then, Abela is left with clear choice before him

All three media surveys, published over in the past month, clearly show that the ruling Labour Party is losing support.  But they also suggest that this haemorrhage from the PL is mostly swelling the ranks of the abstentionists; rather than benefiting the PN, or any other opposition party. 

Moreover, both the MaltaToday and Times of Malta surveys also suggest that around a quarter of the electorate would not vote at all; thus reinforcing a trend already established in the last general election, which saw both parties losing support to abstention.

But while the PN ended up losing more votes in 2022, surveys now indicate that it is Labour that is bleeding out most to the abstentionist camp. And this – rather than a surge in support for the PN -  is why the gap between the two parties is currently narrowing. 

Nonetheless, while abstention may well be the first step towards a change in government, it could also be interpreted as a ‘yellow card’ for Labour, rather than a red one.  In this sense, Prime Minister Abela may still be in time to nip such problems in the bud, by addressing the street-level concerns of voters.  

Even so, however: the events of the past weeks may well have reinforced popular disillusionment: first, in the aftermath of a court sentence which lambasted a flagship government project, in the health sector, as ‘fraudulent’; and secondly, through Rosianne Cutajar’s failure to understand that the recently leaked  WhatsApp chats – in which she complained that the behaviour of others in the Labour Party, justified her own choice to “pig out, like them” - have rendered her position as a Labour MP untenable.

Unfortunately, on both occasions Robert Abela has chosen to flip-flop: failing to send a clear message that he is truly on the side of the people, and not of fraudsters and MPs who have no qualms about ‘gorging themselves at the pig-trough’.  

For example, he could have better utilised his time in Parliament to apologise to the public, for the waste of public funds in a doomed healthcare privatisation project; but instead, he chose to seemingly ‘defend’ Steward in Parliament (only to turn his guns on them just a few days later).

As for Cutajar: Abela did eventually send a clear message, by telling her that ‘nobody is bigger than the party’ -  which can only be interpreted to mean that he considers her position, as a Labour MP, to be untenable.

But again, this was a problem that he should have foreseen; and could easily have avoided altogether, months ago.

And while many of the scandals facing Abela are inherited from the Muscat era: his reluctance to draw a firewall between himself, and his predecessor,  is constantly coming back to haunt him: in a moment when he should be completely focused on tackling national issues like inflation, housing affordability and the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

Other inexplicable choices by Abela include his refusal to appoint a public inquiry into the death of John Paul Sofia, in a construction-site accident:  something which can only be explained by obstinance, and sheer insensitivy towards a grieving family pleading for justice.  

Abela also fails to realise that on issues like the environment, people now expect decisive action; rather than more empty talk about ‘balance’ and ‘compromise’. In his interview with MaltaToday, Abela did hint at a possible compromise on contentious issues - like the relocation of a petrol station in a Gzira garden; and the redevelopment of the Comino hotel - but he should keep in mind that the ‘balance’ has long been skewed against local communities.

Abela should also remember that it took a whole decade for Labour to reap the dividends from the PN’s decline: after the latter had achieved its mission of anchoring Malta in the European Union.  

But the signs were already there, in the 2004 MEP elections: when a sizeable segment of PN leaning voters opted for AD candidate Arnold Cassola.  And while the PN still managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, in 2008; it subsequently went into a downward spiral, from which it still has to fully recover.  

Just as the PN’s formidable ‘coalition of views’ started crumbling, as the party started losing the ideological glue which held it together: Labour, too, has now started experiencing its own identity crisis. And if not managed properly, it could easily end up dragging the party into the same wilderness which the PN is still stuck in, today.  

Meanwhile, the fact that the current crisis has also coincided with inflation and financial hardships, could make the electorate more susceptible to issues like corruption (which are largely overlooked in “the best of times”).

Above all, Abela should remember that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’; and current non-voters may eventually move on to new political pastures. At this stage, then, Abela is left with clear choice before him.

He can either go down in history as the Labour leader who presided over his party’s messy decline; or else, as the leader who stood up to the challenges, and continued changing the country, thus giving the party a sense of purpose.