A new political season for Malta

Will both parties commit themselves to a change in the political culture that respects voters, that vows to address the shortcomings in good governance, that builds a new foundation of trust for the Maltese republic?’

The emotions that ran high as Joseph Muscat gave his last speech as prime minister were an enduring image for Malta’s typical hero-worship of ‘big men’ in public life: politics, business, sports… the personality cult has been with us for decades and only now it seems are people attempting to chip away at this patina of blind of loyalty.

Muscat came on stage in a fitting send-off to crown the greatness with which his persona had been imbued. His choreographed speech, the skilled oratory in which he delivers gravitas and light humour with ease, the timbre of his voice and posture… with this came the long list of his administrations’ achievements, delivered with some woeful self-awareness of the rude interruption to what should have been a longer political cycle.

There is no doubt in observers’ and voters’ minds, that Muscat’s mercurial career is replete with unprecedented success. Not only was he a successful party leader who took over a broken party to turn it into a modern, winning machine, but he gelled together self-interest groups to command hegemonic vote majorities. With that came formidable economic growth, and a socially liberal outlook that not only threw out the ingrained conservatism of Nationalist politics but normalised life for many social groups, making Malta a leader in LGBT rights.

Less of a socialist and more the Blairite social democrat, Muscat’s role as prime minister was embodied by his well-educated, liberal, and business-savvy outlook. His forays onto the stage of European politics made him an apt representative of the Maltese. He made his personal ambition and energetic approach to a politics that serves people, the mark of a successful Labour government. There is no doubt that yet more greatness beckoned.

But the shadow of Panama and the tragic aftermath of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination is an indelible stain on this man’s legacy. Panamagate, and its link to Labour’s chief electoral promise of 2013, an attempt to create a conduit for alleged bribes on the gas power plant in which Yorgen Fenech was a shareholder, cast a shadow over Muscat and his closest allies. The arrest of Fenech, the 17 Black owner, on suspicion of being the mastermind of the Caruana Galizia assassination, and the implication of Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri, broke down the trust Muscat commanded over a sizeable part of the electorate. What did he know all along, of the Panama connection, and of Schembri’s intimacy with Fenech?

None of this tragedy can be separated from Muscat’s legacy. Like all prime ministers, his successes can be seen by critical eyes as being balanced out by their costs: an economy on steroids dependent on over-development, the radical change in our townscapes, the destruction of the countryside and village cores, the social fabric disturbed by hiked up property prices and rents for foreign workers, the unwillingness to heed warnings on governance and allegations of corruption. Propping up the ‘successful’ machinery o Muscat’s Labour government came with a dependence on propaganda, the millions of euros drummed up by the sale of citizenship to the global elites, and a ‘pro-business’ approach that has also punished Maltese communities.

Yes, Muscat is entitled to croon on the jobs he created and the social welfare net which he strengthened. But his legacy has to take into account the reputational disaster that emanated from the Panama Papers and his collaborators’ involvement in an assassination that has torn apart the country.

This history is not Labour’s to write.

That is something Malta’s new prime minister should keep in mind.

Chris Fearne said he would make cleaning up Malta’s reputation a priority, gathering stakeholders for a constitutional convention to address Malta’s governance shortcomings. Robert Abela has sounded less keen about the prospect. But what these candidates said on the soapbox for Labour Party voters is now a different matter altogether: they have the Maltese nation to answer to.

Again, this has been greatly exacerbated by the circumstances of Joseph Muscat’s exit strategy. By retaining the position of prime minister down to the final whistle, and even addressing the party general conference on the eve of the vote, Muscat has made himself an arbiter of the transition of power in a very subtle way, imparting to Labour voters a message to replicate the success of his leadership. At what cost, one might ask.

Malta is headed into yet a new political season. A new Labour leader might be eager to seal a new five-year term with another snap election, perhaps in the near future, and capitalise on a divided PN led by a lame duck leader. If Robert Abela wins the election (we wrote this editorial on the eve of his election), he will also have to see how to command the loyalty of a Cabinet of ministers that has sworn allegiance to Chris Fearne in this leadership campaign. It could mean uncharted waters for Labour as Muscat’s unifying force gives way to a new kind of influence. The PN itself might be gearing up for an inevitable ‘coup’ to select a new leader that can take on the new prime minister. Will both parties commit themselves to a change in the political culture that respects voters, that vows to address the shortcomings in good governance, that builds a new foundation of trust for the Maltese republic?’