[ANALYSIS] The implications of a Labour landslide

The results of the Maltese election show Joseph Muscat consolidating his 2013 gains amidst a strong performance in the economy and a bad record on governance. What does this say about Muscat’s intentions and the PN’s future? James Debono asks

Joseph Muscat may well interpret this result as one which washes the Panama stain away, and a license to retain Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri
Joseph Muscat may well interpret this result as one which washes the Panama stain away, and a license to retain Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri

Did the economy trump corruption?

The PL’s landslide suggests that the corruption issue, illustrated primarily by the Panama Papers, was not decisive in this election. The result reflected the ‘feel good’ factor in the country as a result of a buoyant economy, and it remains doubtful whether corruption even resonates with the electorate when the economy is thriving, especially when people do not feel that corruption is eroding their living standards.

The result also confirms the trend, which sees the electorate rewarding incumbent governments with even better results, as was the case in 1976, 1992 and 2003. But the scale of Labour’s victory makes it even harder for the PN this time around to focus on winning the next election.

Yet one other implication of the result could be that of absolving Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s decision to set up offshore companies in Panama a few days after the election. For the message sent is that this kind of impropriety has absolutely no impact on voters and this could be interpreted as a sign that anything goes as long as the economy grows.

Muscat may well interpret this result as one which washes the Panama stain away, and a license to retain Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. But this path could be interrupted by pending magisterial inquiries which will not go away.

Still another interpretation of the result is that the PN is not trusted to address this issue. For the PN it was always difficult to project itself as a party of good governance after being voted out of office in 2013 with a baggage accumulated throughout 25 years in power.

The result suggests that any movement of switchers or Labour voters who went back to the PN was compensated by an equal number of voters who switched from the PN to the PL in the past four years. This could be an indication that the PL has made inroads among a category of voters, which has prospered under Labour and has become immune to accusations of bad governance.

A wipe-out for the opposition?

One major implication of the result is that it might give the government the impression that it can ride rough shod on a weakened opposition. With the opposition relegated to the political wilderness, the government could reap the benefits of a honeymoon period. The next months could see the government using this period to take controversial and unpopular decisions, while the PN licks its wounds.

The opposition is at a crossroads. Clearly the result sends the message that in its current form the PN is not electable. This is bound to raise questions on Simon Busuttil’s leadership qualities and ability to win elections. While Busuttil’s stature grew among PN voters during the campaign as he rallied the troops to battle, he is clearly not reaching out to strategic categories of voters and has not blocked the haemorrhage of votes to Labour.

But this raises a fundamental question as to how the PN can reach out to those categories of voters it needs to win over. Under Busuttil, the PN experimented with the coalition formula by striking a deal with Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party. This formula was not successful in terms of electoral results although Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia did perform well on district level.

The choice facing the PN is whether to go further along this path and try to occupy the centre-left space of Maltese politics, or to return to return to its roots as a centre-right party with a strong appeal to the business class.

With Muscat occupying the centre-right of  the political spectrum without losing working class support, the PN’s major problem could well have been that it lacked the authenticity to appeal to voters disgruntled by Muscat’s business-friendly policies and corruption scandals. Perhaps while the PN's greatest strength is its ability to present itself as an umbrella of people hailing from different backgrounds united by certain values, its greatest weakness is to look down on labourites and switchers, thus creating a barrier for them to cross over.  The PN cannot afford to present itself as  "labour-proof".

It also raises questions about whether the good governance issue should remain the PN’s battle-cry or whether the party should concentrate on other issues like the economy or living standards.

Another major dilemma for the PN is whether it can afford to associate itself with extremist or highly charged discourse and exaggerations, which sometimes served to delegitimise its valid criticism. For while the drama in the country was a direct result of Muscat’s personal decision to retain Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in office despite being exposed for owning Panama companies, voters may have found divisive language off-putting. Extremist discourse also gave Labour the opportunity to create a caricature of the PN.

What is sure is that if PN opts for a new leader, he or she will have the carte blanche to impose changes, which Simon Busuttil lacked when he was elected in 2013.

For, as Gonzi’s anointed successor, Busuttil was still crippled in his first three years as leader by factional infighting, which led him to fiascos like his abstention on civil unions. Neither was he in a position to enact a complete break with the past as in many ways he represented continuity. It was only in his final year that Busuttil started asserting his authority. The irony for the PN is that it risks removing Busuttil at the moment when he started breaking up with the past.

Rule by plebiscite?

One major dilemma for Muscat is whether to interpret this result as one which washes away the stains on governance or one which gives him more leeway to reign in those elements which have stained his party’s and government’s reputation.

Another issue is whether the result will lead to further retrenchment and hostility towards critics from civil society and the media. Muscat’s bullish tone during the campaign clearly contrasted with his more inclusive pitch in 2013. This may suggest that Muscat will feel emboldened to be more assertive and bullish in the next five years. His appeal to national reconciliation in his victory speech suggests that Muscat is aware of this dilemma.

Yet much depends on what he understands by reconciliation; whether his reference to “national unity” represents a recognition of pluralism or a mind-frame which is inherently hostile to irreverent voices which may be inconvenient for the powers that be but which are vital for democracy. Media commentaries by Labour exponents have already singled out the independent media for taking a political stance, despite this being something which happens in all democratic countries.

Emboldened by such a result Muscat may be strong enough to ignore Panamagate and its various ramifications. After managing to win convincingly, despite retaining Mizzi as Minister and Schembri, he may well decide to retain them. With the Opposition in shambles, he would have achieved the aim of the Blitzkrieg election – that of vanquishing the Opposition and making it regret of making corruption its major issue. One major consideration is that Muscat has already indicated that he will only serve in office for 10 years. But boosted by another super-majority Muscat may choose to lead his party towards another victory in five years’ time and perhaps resign after.

What is sure is that the result reinforces the perception of Labour as Muscat’s party. It clearly indicates that his formula of appeasing big business, introducing more civil liberties and strengthening social safety nets has been electorally successful. Whether this model is economically and environmentally sustainable in the long-term remains to be seen. But so far the electorate has clearly approved it.

But if that is the case – and his permanence in office is not upset by the pending judicial inquiries – he will have to start grooming a new leader in the next five years.

Pending magisterial inquiries on Egrant and Keith Schembri may make his honeymoon somewhat less agreeable but much depends on the results of these investigations. The most devastating scenario would be that in which the magistrate finds enough evidence that Muscat has lied on the ownership of Egrant. In such a scenario the legitimacy of the new government would be questioned and the country will be thrown in disarray.

But if Muscat were to be absolved in the Egrant inquiry, he would have even more ammunition to devastate the Opposition by holding them accountable for fabricating evidence against him. This would further consolidate his hold on power. Emboldened by his super-majority, Muscat will survive less dramatic scenarios like being absolved on Egrant while his chief of staff is subjected to further investigations.