Continuity is not an option

Both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela must sufficiently distance themselves from what they now both recognise to be the ‘mistakes’ of the Muscat government

The coming weekend’s Labour Party leadership election unfolds against the backdrop of Malta’s deepest political crisis since the 1980s.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the events and revelations of the past two months have radically redimensioned the Labour Party’s political fortunes, whilst also severely damaging Malta’s reputation on an international level.

Whoever wins Saturday’s vote will therefore be faced with two equally daunting challenges: he will have to build bridges with the electorate – especially that crucial segment whose trust in Labour has been seriously dented by the dark shadow cast over Castille by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

But he will also have to make good for the reputational damage caused by Joseph Muscat’s dramatic downfall, while not unduly jeopardising the country’s economic prospects.

Unfortunately for the two contenders, this balancing act involves a certain amount of contradiction. On one hand, both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela must project a level of continuity from the preceding administration; and this also demands the continuation of a certain level of economic growth and prosperity that by now is almost taken for granted.

At the same time, however, they must sufficiently distance themselves from what they now both recognise to be the ‘mistakes’ of the Muscat government… all without losing the trust of a Labour electorate that is still largely infatuated by their disgraced idol.

Put simply, the dilemma resembles a clutch/brake balance between continuity and change. Both are necessary for the transition to be successful; but too much of either could easily lead to further destabilisation of both party and country.

Already difficult in itself, this task has also been greatly exacerbated by the circumstances of Joseph Muscat’s exit strategy. Instead of quietly retreating into the background, to allow for a choice free from his own political influence, Joseph Muscat has done the opposite: retaining the position of prime minister down to the final whistle, and even addressing the party general conference on the eve of the vote.

This will only make it that much harder for both contenders to free themselves from the shackles of their predecessor: suggesting that, even at this late stage, Joseph Muscat still intends to set his own stamp on the decision of his own replacement leader.

Even without this consideration, however, it has already been visible from the campaigns that both contenders are facing a moral and political dilemma.

Despite initially denouncing “a diabolical pact” to stop the contest from taking place, Robert Abela has been careful not to alienate Joseph Muscat’s support base throughout his campaign. This may explain his emphasis on “stability”, “unity” and “normality”: excluding any talk of a Cabinet reshuffle, and even arguing that “we cannot turn the world upside down” in pursuit of change.

Chris Fearne, on the other hand, has markedly positioned himself as the candidate representing ‘change’ over ‘continuity’. When announcing his candidature he committed himself to “clean the country’s reputation from any stain,”; to ensure that “truth is revealed and justice prevails”; and to ensure “that Malta [presumably, as opposed to the Castile cabal] once again comes first and foremost.”

All this suggests an acknowledgement that the outgoing government was indeed guilty of many of the charges levelled at it by civil society. And it contrasts starkly with Robert Abela’s dismissal of civil society protests as an act of “provocation” – a view no doubt intended to appeal to the Labour Party diehard core.

Nonetheless, Fearne could not resist the call of the party faithful, who – even while they might share his overall concerns – still expect a measure of political belligerence from a contender for the party leadership.

This might explain the apparent contradiction between his critical attitude towards Muscat, and his eyebrow-raising quip that the words ‘RIPN” should be engraved on his own tombstone when he dies… because “the Nationalist Party will never win another election” as long as he [Fearne] is alive’.

Evidently, to win the leadership election Fearne still feels compelled to play the traditional game that is expected of him by the party rank and file. This raises separate questions as to how he intends to bridge the gap between his partisan posturing, and his overarching aim to ‘cleanse’ the country’s institutions from the glut of corruption left by the outgoing government.

Underpinning both these approaches is the same dilemma, which also lies at the heart of the twin roles – Prime Minister, and Labour Party leader – that the two candidates are vying for.

As prospective prime ministers, Fearne and Abela must somehow rise above partisan bickering to reach out to a wider – and very disillusioned – electorate. But as a PL leadership contest, the decision will not be taken by the Labour Party’s opponents or critics; so too much pandering to the anti-Muscat might easily backfire.

Given the gravity of the current political situation, however, it is clear that partisan antagonism should have no real place in Saturday’s vote. Ideally, both contenders should be focused on one task, and one task only: restoring the local and international trust that Malta has lost as a result of recent events.

As such, continuity is no longer a feasible option. The only way forward is change.