The election campaign starter pistol

The truth is that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s administration is reeling from a blow that may well have fatal long-term consequences. 

Traditionally – and for obvious reasons – the party in Opposition always seeks to engender the impression of a government in crisis. In this case, it didn’t have to try very hard. PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami had a point this week, when he accused Konrad Mizzi of “promising us a power station, and delivering ‘panic stations’ instead.”

The truth is that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s administration is reeling from a blow that may well have fatal long-term consequences. Whether Muscat himself is aware of this, however, remains to be seen.

What is certain is that the scandal that has come to be known as ‘Panamagate’ has fired the starter pistol for the next general election campaign. More precisely, it has clearly drawn the battle lines along which the next election will be fought: placing ‘good governance at the top of the electoral agenda, at a time when the government would much rather fight on other issues such as Malta’s economic performance.

Already there are indications that this scandal is the major factor forming political opinion in the country right now. The result of our trust rating polls, published today, seems to confirm this.

As things stand, Muscat has lost 6 points since becoming PM in 2013, while Simon Busuttil – who before Panamagate had gained 3 points in trust – has now gained almost 7 points.

Clearly, Panamagate has enabled the Opposition leader to step up a gear. The protest he organised and led last week has obviously given the PN a much-needed psychological boost: possibly to the extent of allowing Busuttil to tell voters he can win the next election, and enabling him to galvanise more support over the next two years.

The scandal also provided Busuttil with a podium on which to play the part of Opposition leader to the full. Panamagate has helped him to grow in stature, and – more importantly – to appeal to a crucial segment of the electorate which may have trusted Muscat, or which was so far not willing to commit itself to any leader.

Crucially, Simon Busuttil has managed to close the trust gap to 3.6 points. The electoral fever drummed up by the Nationalists’ strong performance over the past two weeks has evidently shaken voters to retrench and swear absolute loyalty to leaders, which is why Simon Busuttil has gained a sizeable 26.5% of switchers who voted Labour in 2013. This is something that should be ringing alarm bells inside Labour HQ and at Castille

At the same time, it should not come as a surprise. Such was inevitably going to be the effect of Muscat’s ill-advised decision to retain Konrad Mizzi as minister and deputy leader for party affairs, in spite of the scandal. 

What our poll strongly suggests is that a sizeable portion of those former PN voters who voted Labour at the last election have gravitated back towards the Nationalist Party. Muscat may not have lost support from his own party faithful; but it is the strategically crucial segment of ‘switchers’ that he most needs to retain to guarantee a second electoral victory.

Yet this is precisely the sort of voter who would base their voting decision on issues such as governance, accountability, meritocracy and transparency: all the promises made by Muscat, but which have not yet been delivered.

It is, of course, remarkable that Muscat seems redoubtable against the Opposition’s incursions; but his solid trust rating could be a double-edged sword. The longer the current situation is drawn out, the greater the disillusionment, and the lesser the chances of reversing the electoral tide. Time works against Muscat; and in time he might begin experiencing losses from within his fold. 

Moreover, the high levels of trust he still enjoys risk making the prime minister even more complacent than he already is.

Either way, Muscat clearly hopes that Panamagate will simply fizzle out. His hope is not groundless.

Konrad Mizzi may now carry the unfortunate moniker of ‘Mr Panama’; but even at the height of Alfred Sant’s own incursions against PN finance minister John Dalli – who was never a stranger to political controversy – the PN held its head high on the strength of programmatic reforms and economic records. Muscat intends to play a wait-and-see game on Panamagate: to sit tight, and withstand the pressure of public opinion.

Two outcomes may be at hand. Muscat may opt for the status quo, but so far he has committed himself to introduce a commissioner for public standards before the next election. If his good governance pledge stops at that, he would have further disappointed by not punching above his weight when it comes to crucial reforms that Maltese democracy needs. By not going further, he is risking political inertia.

For the PN, the Opposition may seek more aggressive tactics: employing the full force of parliamentary obstacles, harnessing the power of social media commentary against Labour, and using “the crisis of corruption” as a pretext to sour government’s propositions and decisions. Undoubtedly, Labour will set up even stronger partisan buffers in a bid not to concede an inch to the PN.

Clearly, the wheels of the next election have been set in motion. 

More in Editorial