The choice is clear

Muscat has strengthened his position in terms of personal trust ratings – but this must be counterbalanced by a marked drop in trust of the Labour government as a whole. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Last Monday, the House of Representatives debated of a motion of no-confidence in the government, tabled by the opposition. With all government MPs declaring their voting intentions beforehand, the result of that vote did not come as a surprise. But Prime Minister Joseph Muscat would be making a grave mistake – which, to be fair, does not seem to be the case – if he took last Monday’s reconfirmation of his mandate as a sign that the storm over Panamagate has now blown over.

During the debate itself, Muscat appeared to acknowledge this fact even before the vote was taken. He clearly stated that “No action was not an option” with regard to Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi; more recently, he qualified that by stating that while action would have to be taken, he would await the results of the ongoing national audit.

Politically, one can understand the prime minister’s position. In a climate characterised by (often unnecessarily) high political tension, the removal of Mizzi would be interpreted as a clear sign of defeat. In a sense, the Opposition motion of no-confidence only served to reinforce the political dimension of this debate: having duly won that vote, government has no immediate impetus to take an action that would seem (to many of its supporters) as a contradiction of what is otherwise a ‘victory’ for their side.

But this would be to gravely misunderstand the nature of the furore surrounding this case. Muscat may have successfully quelled – at least for the moment – that his administration faced any imminent threat to its survival. The long-term threat however remains. 

The results of our survey, published today, indicate as much. Of most direct relevance is the fact that an absolute majority (51%) want Mizzi to resign. The implications become clear when the results are broken down by political allegiance: as many as one in five Labour voters want the energy minister out… while another one fifth are ‘undecided’. That is significantly high for this kind of poll: for Muscat, these results are ominously comparable to similar polls about the Gonzi administration before the 2013 election.

Of even greater concern to the prime minister is the fact that this percentage rises to over two-thirds in the case of ‘switchers’ – the category that had abandoned the PN for Labour in droves before that same election. It is to these voters, and not just the core Labour support-base, that Muscat owes not only his electoral victory, but also the unprecedented nine-seat majority (now whittled down to eight) that allowed him to so easily sidestep Monday’s vote.

Even if Muscat remains on course to govern until the end of his term (all other things remaining equal), it is clear that his unassailable electoral advantage has been seriously dented by this issue. Until this point, the prime minister may well have been gambling on his ability to weather the storm: that the (presumed) success of his government’s economic programme would give his party the boost it needs to regain lost ground over the next two years.

This hope looks a lot less likely now. Not only does Muscat risk losing the one category of voter that keeps his government afloat; but he seems to also be underestimating the impact the Panama Papers have had even on his own core party vote.

Admittedly, it is unlikely that Muscat would register significant loss of support from a proverbially faithful party following. But with his previous advantage partially neutralised, the two parties are now almost as good as level. In future, Muscat may well look back on the present situation with considerable regret: more than any other development over the last three years, his inaction over Panamagate may well prove to be the single most irksome albatross around his government’s neck.

Another consideration that should cause Muscat concern – albeit paradoxically – is the fact that his own trust ratings have increased in the same survey. The prime minister may take comfort in this fact… until now, it was not yet clear whether the opposition tactic of tarring Muscat with the same brush as Mizzi would rub off on the electorate.

Initial indications appear to be that it hasn’t – Muscat has even strengthened his position in terms of personal trust ratings – but this must be counterbalanced by a marked drop in trust of the Labour government as a whole. 

Past MaltaToday surveys have consistently indicated that Muscat is more popular than his party. It seems now that the charismatic prime minister has opened up this already significant gap in trust ratings even further. From the outside looking in, it is almost as though Muscat were in competition, not just against his opposition counterpart, but also against the rest of his own party.

This is not a healthy state for a government to be in. Muscat may yet prove to have the stamina and personality to singlehandedly win an election for the Labour Party… but the vision of a ‘unified team’, working together for the common interest, will have been shattered forever.

The prime minister is still in time to take the necessary action to salvage what he can from this debacle. His choice is now painstakingly clear.

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