The Prime Minister’s position is untenable

The stage is set for Muscat’s exit, and the chance for Labour to save the vestiges of its administration and its name as a social-democratic party

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Yesterday marked the culmination of Joseph Muscat’s biggest ever misjudgement – retaining Keith Schembri as his chief of staff, and Konrad Mizzi, when they were revealed to have opened offshore companies in Panama in 2016.

Within a year, with the snap election that was announced in 2017, it was further revealed that a connection existed between the Dubai company 17 Black and the Panama companies – a mystery only finally confirmed in 2018 a year after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, linking the Panama companies to Yorgen Fenech, the Electrogas shareholder.

In these three years, the Labour government held out in defence of its minister and the chief of staff, preventing formal investigations into the Panama Papers from taking place.

The prime minister preferred to ride the wave of his popular support instead of facing the moral question staring at his administration: the use of offshore companies opened by his closest allies, an action that had a strong whiff of corruption and bribery. This unsustainable marriage of unbridled piracy and Labour’s values, has found a murderous end when faced by the truth of their action.

Instead of probing his two men, Muscat defended them with legalistic ripostes, breeding – at the very least – a sense of unfairness and indecency that is felt by the common man in the street.

Labour clearly has an electoral mandate to govern till 2022 – but Joseph Muscat’s moral authority has been compromised to the point of no return after failing to sack Keith Schembri despite mounting evidence of irregular behaviour before he resigned under duress after being summoned to the police headquarters for questioning.

The country is now in a Catch-22 situation. 

On one hand Labour has a clear mandate to govern and complete the legislature.  On the other, Malta finds itself facing its greatest political earthquake led by a Prime Minister who for three years refused to sack a Minister and a chief of staff who not had set up secret companies in Panama after the 2013 elections.

The protests of yesterday, the justified anger of people outside the House of Representatives, were necessary and a sign of the endgame to what Panamagate has represented.

Normally in such circumstances the country needs strong leadership.  Muscat immediately reacted to Caruana Galizia’s assassination by promising to leave no stone unturned in solving this case and his words were matched by the arrest of the three executioners weeks after the murder. Muscat emerged stronger than ever and was rewarded by greater public support. 

But now the situation is entirely different.

With his chief ally associated with Fenech not just in the 17 Black scandal, but possibly in terms of either more corrupt dealings or the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Muscat cannot avoid the association and the guilt his own administration carries.

Murder – political murder – is hanging on the Muscat administration.

A subdued Muscat said he will stay on as PM in the weeks to come, but his administration has been shorn of the moral force that a prime minister needs to keep on governing.

Schembri was the architect of the Labour victories that Muscat heralded, but also at the heart of the ‘pro-business’ mantra that Labour espoused. Muscat will have to shoulder the responsibility of having retained Schembri by his side, as the situation becomes untenable for him to stay on as PM in the weeks to come.

A further complication concerns Yorgen Fenech’s request for a Presidential Pardon. Under law, this can only come about on the recommendation of the Prime Minister; in this case, it would mean Joseph Muscat deciding whether or not to take a decision that might lead to criminal charges against his own former Chief of Staff.

This is not a decision that can be taken by Joseph Muscat. There is no doubt that the PM is mulling a way forward for an interim prime minister who can take the necessary decisions to bring full closure to the murder investigation.  

The stage is set for Muscat’s exit, and the chance for Labour to save the vestiges of its administration and its name as a social-democratic party. But that may require a clear departure from the subservience to the big business interests, which ultimately brought upon Muscat’s undoing.