An election belittled by war? How the Russian invasion could impact election

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has overshadowed an election many regard as a foregone conclusion. So will more voters rally behind the incumbent in a time of crisis, or seek change to redress the reputational damage which came back to haunt us after the EU called on member states to stop selling passports to Russian oligarchs? Or will voters recoil at the dissonance between war and electoral fanfare to simply abstain?

Voters tend to value stability and look for strong leadership in tough times

In moments of crisis triggered by events like the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the onset of the pandemic, surveys showed the public rallying behind Joseph Muscat and subsequently Robert Abela. This is because in turbulent times, people tend to avoid risk and prefer the devil they know to uncertainty.

Moreover when it came to managing the pandemic, Robert Abela’s government has earned the public’s trust. In this sense rather than banking on a wave for change, the Opposition has to reassure the public that it can offer stability and leadership. But voters will also be asking which party leader has the best statesmanlike qualities to lead the country in a turbulent international climate.

And while Abela benefits from incumbency, the reputational damage to the country in the past decade raises questions on Labour’s credentials. Abela’s participation in high-level EU meetings could reinforce his standing locally. But in this role he is eclipsed by Roberta Metsola, who as President of the European Parliament not only participates in all high-level meetings, but voices continental outrage at the invasion. This inevitably boosts her local standing as a potential future prime minister.

But abstention may grow as the war makes the campaign look frivolous and electoral promises harder to keep considering the unstable global scenario.

As storm clouds gather on the economic horizon, extravagant manifesto commitments suggest that both major parties are in denial mode. The reality is that Malta is not insulated from what happens in the rest of the world and if the world economy contracts, Malta would also suffer. Throwing money at any problem may not be sustainable in the long term.

Malta will also have to renegotiate its gas purchase agreement after the fixed price agreement with Electrogas expires this year. This dissonance between the election carnival and a war in the heart of Europe may well make more voters recoil in a way, which boosts abstention.

Malta’s migration ‘problem’ pales in comparison to the massive flow of people fleeing from the Ukraine to Eastern Europe and this makes tough talk on immigration anachronistic

Malta has made a strong case over the years for burden sharing which was mainly obstructed by the Visegrad group of Eastern European nations including Poland who are now willingly opening their borders to the greatest influx since WW2. And while countries like Poland may now be more amenable to a burden sharing mechanism, this would also see Malta take its share of migrants from Ukraine. The risk is that the heavy strain posed by resettling millions of Ukrainians may end up reinforcing ‘fortress Europe’ despite the ongoing but largely overlooked tragedy in the Mediterranean. The crisis has also exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of the anti-immigrant far right which even locally includes a number of Putin apologists.

This is a big blow to Labour’s plan to turn Malta in playground for rich oligarchs.

The war in Ukraine exposes the short-sightedness of an economic model partly based on turning Malta into a playground for the global rich, particularly oligarchs from Russia who accounted for around a fourth of citizenships acquired under Malta’s controversial citizenship by investment programme. In short, another highlight of Joseph Muscat’s legacy, is now biting the dust.

Abela’s dilly-dallying before taking the inevitable step of stopping applications from Russia was so far the Maltese government only serious misstep since the beginning of the crisis. And while golden passports schemes banked on the insecurities of oligarchs seeking a double insurance by cozying up to the regime at home while seeking a foothold in the west, the new sanctions regime now aimed at driving a wedge between Putin and oligarchs has dealt a lethal blow to the scheme. While the scheme may still thrive on insecurities in other regions like the Middle East and to some extent post brexit UK, the current crisis has exposed the frailty of one of the few ‘industries’, which took root in Malta in the past decade.

As Europe scrambles for alternatives to Russian gas, LNG terminals like Malta’s could become more common despite greater concern on dependencies on authoritarian regimes

In the short term Europe will be seeking alternatives to Russian gas, possibly by relying more in gas from other markets supplied to offshore LNG terminals like the one in Delimara. It could also accelerate the drive towards hydrogen, as an alternative energy source but much depends on whether this can be produced by renewables or by using more gas. It could also renew interests in possible fossil fuel deposits in the Mediterranean even if this would contradict climate change commitments.

It is unclear whether the crisis would make the EU more amenable to Malta’s bid for EU funding for a pipeline, as this would simply connect Malta to the continental infrastructure, which to a large extent depends on Russian imports. In the long term the crisis may boost investment in renewable sources although countries may be increasingly tempted by take short cuts like nuclear energy and grey hydrogen.

Moreover if Vladimir Putin further affirms his authority on former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan’s stake in Malta’s energy sector could raise concern. Just two days before Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin signed a wide-ranging agreement with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, deepening their diplomatic and military cooperation. Crucially the two countries agreed to “refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other Party.”

In the General Assembly’s vote on Ukraine, Azerbaijan was one of 12 countries that did not even turn up for the vote. China’s stake in the other power station could also expose Malta to further trouble, if the Asiatic power starts flexing its muscles over Taiwan.

Just as Solidarnosch inspired the PN in 1980s, solidarity with the Ukraine may inspire a new generation of activists facing Malta’s own version of oligarchy and crony capitalism

Historically the PN always took pride in its mission to anchor Malta in the European Union, despite strong opposition from the Labour party and its allies before the 2003 referendum. Even in the 1980s the PN strongly identified with the Polish trade union movement that resisted the Stalinist regime and the wave of protests which toppled the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

Roberta Metsola’s key role as European Parliament president in setting the tone of the European moral response to the current crisis, and her support for Ukraine’s bid to join the EU, inevitably turns her into a reference point for those aspiring for a more vocal Malta in the international stage.

And while Labour has taken a firm line against Russian aggression and now prides itself on making Malta the best in Europe, constant scrutiny on rule of law issues by EU institutions following the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, has to some extent turned the party into an international pariah. The crisis could reinforce the need for strong leaders like Abela, but younger and more educated voters may aspire to a more continental style of leadership. Some of these may recoil at the proximity of Labour to Malta’s own oligarchs and its flirtation with wealth and big business, which is vaguely reminiscent of the crony capitalism characterising the Putin regime amongst others.

And while any comparison between Malta and Putin’s Russia is absurd, educated Maltese voters may become even more sensitive to media manipulations on partisan TV stations which are reminiscent of Russia Today, and more averse to personality cults which attribute super human qualities to imperfect leaders.

In this sense activists protesting against Labour’s excesses, may get a new impetus in their quest for more democratic safeguards. This generational shift may also be reflected in the Labour party as it anchors itself in progressive European politics.

Both parties have avoided any major debate on foreign policy even if at some stage a debate on Malta’s positioning in the world looks imminent

A survey conducted before the crisis showed that two thirds of the Maltese support the country’s constitutional neutrality, which has actually served the country well.

But the same survey also shows that support for neutrality is conditioned by a widespread misconception that neutrality excludes “taking sides”.

One risk of the current crisis is that Russian aggression will drive presently neutral EU member states like Finland and Sweden in to the embrace of NATO leaving Malta more isolated. But Malta’s model could also serve as a model for countries like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, in their bid to join the EU without necessarily joining NATO.

Moreover the current crisis is bound to strengthen calls for a European army. So far the crisis has not elicited a discussion on the significance of Malta’s active neutrality in the new reality around us. All this is happening in a context where US pressure on Malta to sign up to a SOFA agreement could grow especially in view of the FATF grey which gives the US leverage.

Curiously so far, apart from the obvious platitudes, both parties have so far been mum on whether they support Ukraine’s bid to join the EU or not. The risk is that in the absence of a national foreign policy debate, decisions will be taken on the basis of contingency and convenience rather then on the basis of sound principles and long-term vision.