Muscat must end the uncertainty

Muscat had hinted that he believed country leaders should have a fixed term of 10 years and is arguably the first leader to have declared (not once, but at least three times) that he would not run for a third general election. 

Now that his ambition to secure a top EU job was thwarted last week, it is clear enough that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will not be leaving by October, as previously planned.

But that is the extent of the clarity surrounding Muscat’s political future. Everything else remains murky and uncertain.

His promised departure from politics has been postponed to an unknown date of his own choosing. If he sticks to the original script, it could be any time between now and 2022.

There is, however, no guarantee – beyond a purely verbal, non-committal expression of intent on his own part – that Joseph Muscat will step down as prime minister at all. Already there are (very predictable) indications that his own supporters will make that decision difficult for him. And there are precedents he can choose to follow in the event that he changes his mind, following the failure of his European ‘top job’ aspirations.

Former PL leader Alfred Sant had likewise made a public show of stepping down after the 2004 electoral defeat: only to ‘change his mind’ under pressure from party supporters, thus thwarting the ambitions of those PL exponents who had expressed an interest in running for the post themselves.

Today, a very similar state of uncertainty threatens to undermine the unity and stability that Joseph Muscat managed to impart to Labour since taking the helm in 2008.

The seeds of this uncertainty were sown from the very outset. Even before taking office in 2013, Muscat had hinted that he believed country leaders should have a fixed term of 10 years. He is arguably the first leader to have declared (not once, but at least three times) that he would not run for a third general election. 

Such statements are deemed to be refreshing, especially in the Maltese culture of patriarchal leaders who hold sway over the party for long after their expire date.

Nonetheless, there is a price to be paid for giving oneself an automatic expiry date as prime minister. As the self-imposed deadline looms, it is inevitable that others within the Labour Party will start thinking of an imminent, ‘post-Muscat’ future. 

So, while Muscat was allegedly planning to get his foot in the door to a ‘top job’ in the EU (a fact whispered in Maltese political circles, yet hardly having been the talk of town in Brussels), bold plans were being drafted by those eager for a ‘top job’ in Malta. 

Over the past year, speculation over Muscat’s departure from politics ignited a quiet race between potential contenders for his own position. Case in point: one of the first MPs to declare his ‘pleasure’ at seeing Joseph Muscat stay put in Malta, was deputy prime minister (and oft-touted aspirant) Chris Fearne, who on Twitter implored the PM to keep his hand on the country’s helm.

Fearne was one of a handful of top Labour exponents understood to harbour leadership ambitions of their own (although he never openly confirmed such rumours). Other candidates rumoured to be vying for pole position include Miriam Dalli, Robert Abela, Ian Borg and (controversially) Konrad Mizzi.

Inevitably, this raises the possibility that internal rifts might erupt within the Labour Party, following a lengthy period of stability under a successful, unifying leader. The chaos currently reigning in the Nationalist Party can, in fact, be attributed to that party’s failure to plan properly for the post-Fenech Adami era, which ended in 2004. 

But it is unhealthy for a political party to linger in a state of uncertainty surrounding its future leadership. Already, the situation can be seen to have affected cohesion within the government itself, with insiders speaking of a lull in activity, or of top non-political actors in government now planning their exits.

At times, ministers seem more interested in showcasing their individual successes rather than presenting them within a holistic government plan. This started being evident during the May European election campaign when ministers appeared to be competing with the campaign fronted by Muscat. 

The situation intensified after the election, when Muscat was clearly distracted by what was happening in the corridors of Brussels. As a result, government’s previous ‘hands on’ approach to local issues appears to have faltered, as Muscat seemed increasingly more interested in pursuing his own European ambitions, than in governing the country.

He may have returned from Brussels with renewed ‘vigour’ to finish the job he started in 2017. But Now that the European exit door has been shut, Joseph Muscat must commit himself on his plans as Prime Minister of the country. It is important that he re-asserts his authority on government. He must get back into the driver’s seat, and lead.

There is no place for complacency or inertia. The government must once again work as a unified entity, focusing on growing the economy and improving the quality of life.

But coupled with this renewed vigour, Muscat must also lay down the terms of his exit, giving everyone clarity. The country cannot afford to be in a permanent state of speculation over the Prime Minister’s future. 

Uncertainty does no one any good: especially when artificially created, as in this case.