The country can do without the burden of a Muscat candidacy

If Robert Abela does not have the strength to turn down Muscat, the Labour Party should take that decision for him

Joseph Muscat is a complex larger-than-life figure, whose energy and intelligence changed the country for the better on several aspects of life. 

He revolutionised civil liberties and spared working-class people from austerity. He created the conditions for wealth generation that allowed the government to turn a surplus without raising taxes. Several social measures, including free childcare, the introduction of in-work benefits, the tapering of unemployment benefits and the removal of exam fees allowed people on the lower and middle classes to move up in life. 

He also had the quality of being a good listener, willing to change his thoughts if convinced otherwise. 

This is not a eulogy to Muscat but necessary context to understand why the former prime minister is still loved by many. Muscat is not loved because he was corrupt. He is loved because he did some very good things. 

But one does not have to be aligned with Repubblika or be a blinded Nationalist Party supporter to realise that Muscat’s legacy is problematic on several other aspects. It is a legacy with some dark chapters that have yet to be closed. 

Even among those we call hard core Labour voters there are many who can see the problematic side of Muscat’s legacy even if their heart still beats for the former party leader. 

Muscat failed to act decisively when the Panama Papers scandal erupted, giving rise to justified claims that he was in cahoots and thus unable to act forcefully to remove Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. 

Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed on his watch by an organised crime gang that had at its heart some people very close to the powers in Castille. 

Major projects that characterised the Muscat administration – the Electrogas power station and the Vitals hospitals contract – are embroiled in corruption allegations, with the latter still awaiting the outcome of a magisterial inquiry that can potentially recommend criminal action against Muscat and former ministers Chris Cardona, Konrad Mizzi and Edward Scicluna. 

On Saturday, Robert Abela effectively rolled out the red carpet for Muscat to contest the European election on a Labour ticket. The Prime Minister was reacting to comments Muscat gave to MaltaToday on Friday, that a return to politics was not something he had been considering but he could not ignore the people’s sentiment. 

Muscat’s words can be interpreted that he will contest the MEP election, making a return to politics a mere four years after resigning from prime minister. However, it may also be another act of political posturing to show he still enjoys widespread public support in an attempt to condition the ongoing inquiry. 

What Muscat will do remains to be seen but the onus of responsibility lies with Robert Abela, who until the end of last year had maintained a safe distance from his predecessor. 

The tide changed at the turn of the year when Abela endearingly referred to Muscat as his “friend”, in what appeared to be an act of absolution. 

Abela may have his own strategic considerations for toying with the idea of a Muscat candidature next June. It will definitely help reel in the hard-core vote and possibly cement Labour’s fourth seat.  

Undoubtedly, the Labour Party will make short-term gains by cruising to an easier victory in June. But beyond the strategic considerations, there is also the impact on the nation’s democratic fabric. 

Does the country really need a relapse into the polarising climate of 2017? Do we really have to look backward? Do we really need a referendum on Muscat’s guilt or innocence in elections meant to choose our MEPs? The bitter aftertaste this will inevitably leave should be enough for Abela to tell his friend to back off. Do we really want to spend the next months discussing Egrant, Panama and Muscat’s consultancy on exotic birds? 

The country deserves better than this. 

When Muscat was elected leader in 2008, his predecessor Alfred Sant remained an MP but purposely took a backseat. Muscat himself has often thanked Sant for giving him the space to lead the party without interference. 

Muscat should have taken Sant’s example. Instead, over the past four years he has made sporadic but strategic forays into the national spotlight and most of the time these have been linked to judicial developments or damning media reports. 

The latest foray is possibly the strongest and most meaningful yet. 

Craftily, Muscat suggests that he can’t ignore the voice of the people clamouring for his return. This, in itself, is an invitation for supporters to make their voices heard. It creates momentum and noise. It may well be the case that Muscat is more interested in showing how much love there is for him than in actually contesting - a show of strength in the face of impending judicial trouble. 

Muscat knows that he will be most vulnerable when alone. Like Trump and Berlusconi, Muscat knows he is much stronger when in the limelight, shielded by the love of supporters. 

Labour Party exponents have always insisted the party is larger than the individual – it was this reasoning that partially led to Muscat’s resignation from prime minister in 2020 after anti-corruption protests risked destabilising the country and harming the party. 

If Robert Abela does not have the strength to turn down Muscat, the Labour Party should take that decision for him. 

Rather than rolling out Muscat as some sort of people’s tribune, the government would do well to address the problems that are really angering people, some of which, like overdevelopment, stem from Muscat’s laissez-faire policies and intimacy with big business. 

A Muscat candidacy may generate enthusiasm and boost the election turnout but it may well create new problems the country is no mood to face.