Strengths and weaknesses: Joseph Muscat vs Simon Busuttil

Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil are vying to be the next Prime Minister – the fourteenth in Maltese history. How do the two contenders measure up? Jurgen Balzan reports

Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat (L) and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil (R)
Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat (L) and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil (R)

Joseph Muscat’s strengths 

  • Economy

To a certain extent, Muscat’s unrivalled economic success is built on foundations set by previous PN governments.

Admittedly, Muscat inherited a sluggish economy as Malta was still reeling from the 2008 global financial meltdown. Although Malta was spared the full brunt of the crisis which crippled much of Europe and other big economies, Muscat inherited a country with a deficit at 2.8% of GDP and unemployment standing at 6.5%. 

Four years into his term the country registered a 1% surplus – the first since 1981 – and unemployment at 4.1% – the third lowest in the EU. 

Credit agencies such as Moody’s and Fitch and other international institutions such as the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been “impressed” by Malta’s growth figures. 

The impressive stats are backed by an unprecedented development boom and growing consumption. The reduction in energy prices also strengthened the feel-good factor which has been predominant during his four-year tenure.

It must be said that Muscat was aided by a favourable global climate, with oil prices at a record low. 

The “pro-business” Muscat has described these successes as an “economic miracle” and is urging the electorate to keep him in office to guarantee what Labour is terming as “the best time”.

Talking last year on what has been termed as ‘Muscatonomics’, Muscat told the Economist “we are saying that the market is not a bad thing, that it needs regulation, that government should leave it to the private sector to do what the private sector does best and that it needs to intervene where there are market failures and social issues. And we are also saying that given the EU rules governing the euro and other things, the only credible way of developing infrastructure, of investing, is by roping in the private sector rather than being antagonistic to it.”

  • Reforms

Once Muscat quits politics, he will probably be best remembered for introducing civil unions in a predominantly conservative Catholic country. 

Doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago, Muscat’s government introduced civil unions with the right to apply for adoption together with a cohabitation bill, a gender identity bill and fiscal incentives to encourage more women to join the workforce. 

Muscat prides himself for having led “a social revolution” with universal childcare services being the cherry on the cake. 

  • Leadership 

Muscat is now a seasoned campaigner and judging by his performance in the first few days of the campaign, the Labour leader is a far superior public speaker when compared to Simon Busuttil.

This is reflective of the constant lead Muscat has enjoyed in the trust ratings over Busuttil. According to the latest MaltaToday survey, Muscat enjoys a 4.7 point lead over Busuttil, confirming a lead which he consistently held despite a series of corruption scandals which hit his administration. 

Since taking over the Labour Party in 2008 Muscat has portrayed himself as an assertive leader, who at times did not shy away from taking ruthless decisions, such as the decision to ditch his deputy leader, Anglu Farrugia, on the eve of the 2013 election. 

Although he has not shown the same ruthlessness with Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, Muscat remains highly popular with the party grassroots who will forever be grateful to him for leading the party to an unparalleled victory in 2013. 

Muscat might have lost some of his freshness and sheen but he still comes across as a better debater than Busuttil, who despite drastically improving his public performances still lacks his counterpart’s charisma and aplomb. 

Muscat has also proven himself to be an astute chess player and rarely has he put a foot wrong when it comes to political strategy and manoeuvring. Yet, this election is his greatest test to date and this time he not only has to fight a combative opposition but he must also overcome his own miscalculations.  

Joseph Muscat’s weaknesses 

  • Panama 

Muscat’s decision to retain his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and minister Konrad Mizzi following the revelations that his right hand men held offshore companies in a tax haven cast a shadow on his judgement.

He mishandled the Panamagate fiasco by failing to demand Schembri’s and Mizzi’s resignation in April of last year. 

This reluctance to ditch them will haunt him throughout the election campaign (and probably his political career) as the battle lines are being drawn on the basis of good governance versus his stewardship of the economy.

Nobody in government is indispensable and Muscat will possibly pay a heavy price for sticking with them and creating a groundswell of uncertainty.

Proper governance demanded a full transparent investigation, a police investigation into a predicate offence, and the appointment of an independent inquiry into the Panamagate affair. Instead, Muscat marched on in the hope that the electorate would overlook his failure in dealing with Panamagate appropriately by shifting the focus on to the economy. 

Previous scandals, such as the one involving Marco Gaffarena and Café Premier severely dented Labour’s impregnability. Then came the Panama scandal which definitely robbed Muscat of his greatest strength: his invulnerability. The very risk of losing next month’s election indicates that his failure to seek closure on Panamagate has tarnished his squeaky-clean image. 

  • Environment

Muscat’s ambivalence to land use and green issues have clearly presented the PN with an opportunity to present itself as the more pro-environment of the two main parties. In this sense, environmental issues may be for the PN what civil liberties were for Labour in 2013.

The approval of two major high-rise projects, and the Paceville Master plan which envisages the construction of numerous skyscrapers have all but confirmed Muscat’s vision for Malta, turning it into Dubai in the Mediterranean.

Under Muscat’s helm Malta has gravitated into a perilous ‘business-first-at-all costs’ orbit, and as such we are clearly heading towards an environmental and infrastructural crisis. 

Moreover new policies such as the controversial Rural Policy in Design Guidelines approved in 2014 are facilitating the cementification of the countryside. 

According to this policy, any roofless and long-abandoned countryside ruins can be transformed into small villas. All the owner has to do is prove that the structures had once served as dwellings.  

Moreover, the decision to postpone the approval of new local plans to after the general election raises the prospect of an avalanche of private, pre-electoral promises to landowners in the coming months if Labour is re-elected. 

The flip side of Muscat’s “economic miracle” is the growing inequality and the pressing need to regulate the rental market and raise the minimum wage. 

Muscat has gone as far as admitting that economic growth has not reached everyone and in a predictable move to the left, he said that a new Labour government would prioritise social housing and a rental market reform. 

He has also hailed the minimum wage agreement which Muscat is describing as a rise. However, while Malta Employers Association director general Joseph Farrugia insisted this was no minimum wage increase but a mechanism to reduce the number of workers earning the lowest amount set by law, civil society and anti-poverty activists said the agreement does not go far enough. 

Simon Busuttil’s strengths

  • Honesty

Although he might be judged as being somewhat naive Busuttil comes across as a decent and likeable man and his promise of cleaning up Maltese politics sounds as genuine as it is preposterous. 

“I can promise honesty in politics, something Muscat can’t do because he has lost all integrity,” Busuttil said last week.

By delivering honest policies, Busuttil promises to be “different” both from past Nationalist governments and from the present government. Busuttil – who still trails Muscat in public opinion polls – has for the past four years projected himself as a “different” kind of leader. 

Although honesty is not high up on the electorate’s list of priorities, not even the most fervent Labour supporter can say that Busuttil is dishonest. 

This might change along the course of the campaign as Labour will definitely attempt to tarnish his reputation. 

Thanks to his sobriety and cordiality Busuttil has been the most approachable PN leader in recent history and his attempts to build bridges with the media, civil society and former PN voters are admirable. 

Under his leadership the PN has also bound itself to strict governance standards and addressing the crowds on 1 May, Busuttil said constitutional reform would clean up politics once and for all, ensuring state institutions were free to operate as they should.

Busuttil’s major accomplishment was to relate good governance to sound economic, environmental and social policy. 

Facing criticism that good government may not be enough to win the general election if the economy continues to perform well, Busuttil has underlined the importance of having independent institutions in ensuring that economic growth does not simply benefit the few. 

“Without good governance we will not have an economy for the people but an economy benefitting the few,” Busuttil said recently.  

  • Making the PN electable again 

When Busuttil was elected PN leader four years ago few would have thought that he would have a fighting chance to become Prime Minister given the magnitude of the defeat and the shape the PN was in. 

He inherited a virtually bankrupt party, a largely dispirited grassroots and a party which was still reeling from the divisions exposed by the divorce referendum fiasco.

That the PN is back in with a chance despite starting with an 18,000 vote disadvantage is mostly thanks to Labour’s own goals and Panamagate. 

However, despite doubts on his leadership Busuttil has tightened his grip on the PN and after a slow start he has now complete control on the party’s internal organs.

In his first few months at the helm of the party, Busuttil struggled to assert himself and there was talk of an internal revolt, especially after losing the 2014 European elections with a similar margin to the 2013 general election, though the two parties shared the number of candidates. 

But the defeat allowed Busuttil to affirm his control on the party and this allowed the party to regroup and straighten up the party’s finances. 

Although the PN still lags behind the Labour Party financially and logistically, Busuttil has transformed the party and has a fighting chance to become Prime Minister in four weeks’ time. 

Simon Busuttil’s weaknesses

  • Leadership

Busuttil has often been accused of lacking personality, boldness, ruthlessness and the leadership qualities to convince people that he can be Prime Minister. 

He undermined his leadership by failing to assert himself during the first months in office, especially in the civil unions vote in which the opposition abstained. 

The hunting referendum also exposed his lack of leadership in which he voted in favour of the derogation despite later saying he is “personally not in favour of bird killing.”

For Busuttil the challenge is to be perceived as an authoritive rather than authoritarian leader. But this depends on other factors including the quality and credibility of his front bench and the advisors around him. 

Also, one of Busuttil’s major weaknesses is his dismissive approach towards those who disagree with him. Just as his gentle disposition may be his best character traits, a sense of self-righteousness (often perceived as a sense of superiority that is misplaced in view of his party’s past baggage) is definitely his worst trait. 

  • Credibility

The PN comes from 25 years of office, which inevitably come with a baggage, which weighs heavily on Busuttil who is still perceived as a weak leader, a sort of latter-day Sisyphus whose burden is too heavy for him to bring to the top of the mountain.  

Busuttil’s problem mostly stems from his inability to deal with the two major problems confronting the PN: Muscat’s repositioning of his party as a liberal albeit more cronyist version of Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party, and the sheer fact that electoral cycles in Malta tend to condemn losing parties to 10 years in opposition. All this goes beyond Busuttil’s personal charisma. 

Muscat has clearly occupied the same ideological space associated with past PN governments. When it comes to development policies and privatisation, Muscat is more like a Nationalist on steroids than a socialist. 

Since the PN in essence remains a party of the centre right (aligned to the European People’s Party) there is a limit to how far it can posture itself as centre-left without losing its own authenticity. 

Moreover because of its track record in office, on issues such as the environment, the PN is not benefitting from rebellion against Labour’s shift to the right.

The PN has already spelt its economic vision in a document presented in 2015, but while the document scored well in terms of a vision for the future, it lacked beef – especially on how wealth would be redistributed under a PN government.