[ANALYSIS] Will COVID normality boomerang? Five scenarios for Abela

Low infection rates and high polling numbers have given Robert Abela a victory on COVID-19, but his return to normality can also backfire, JAMES DEBONO finds out

Robert Abela
Robert Abela

If tourists pose no risk, neither do migrants

Shoring up popularity by triggering a wave of nationalism may have boosted support for Abela during difficult times.

However, the return to normality also means that soon enough Malta will have to honour its international obligations to rescue migrants and bring them to shore. For while no COVID cases have been introduced by boats from Africa, tourism was a major contributor to the spread of the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

If Malta fails to open its ports again to search-and-rescue operations it will be exposed as a pariah state which is detaining asylum seekers on Captain Morgan pleasure crafts, using human beings as pawns in a stand-off with the EU.

In addition, while a prolonged stand-off is unlikely to convince immigration hawks like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to assume their responsibilities, locally it will further embolden the xenophobic brigade, further raising their expectations. Abela now risks suffering a backlash from the same audience he has pandered to, as soon as ports are reopened.

Wguke Malta’s demands for greater responsibility sharing in the EU are legitimate, its erratic behavior over the past weeks may have further stained its international reputation, weakening its credibility as a reasonable interlocutor. In this aspect, Malta is more likely to find support for its diplomatic push in Libya, which includes a proposal to boost Libya’s border control, to stop migrants from entering Libya.

Nevertheless, this is also a hard sell considering the impossibility of policing a massive desert border and the risk that this would simply result in more deaths and human rights abuses will inevitably return to haunt Abela.

Calls for justice will make a comeback in post COVID-19 times

The COVID-19 crisis may have robbed Abela of his honeymoon but it also saved Abela from having to answer questions on the fate of high-ranking officials in the Muscat administration implicated in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and in a string of scandals related to 17 Black, Panamagate, and the Vitals hospitals privatization.

Abela’s relationship with former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will once again come under the spotlight. Muscat, who made a comeback as an advisor on economic recovery, still has many questions to answer on his relationship with Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech.

Any failure to investigate Keith Schembri over possible obstruction of justice would expose Abela to charges that it was he who had made a diabolical pact with his predecessor. While in a context of economic growth, it was easy to dismiss corruption allegations and the dark shadow cast on Castille by his predecessor’s actions, these may gain new relevance in a context of economic uncertainty and insecurity.

Abela may face conflicting pressures in his rush to kick-start the economy

Over the past weeks, the Abela administration, mainly thanks to Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, has sent some signs that the environment is a greater consideration when decisions are taken. But in the rush to restore normality, Abela may be tempted to kick-start the economic engine by pandering to the same big business interests, including construction and hotels lobbies, which have contributed to environmental destruction. Even during the health crisis, it became evident that the construction and hotel lobby still carry disproportionate political power. With the economy dipping, their bargaining power to dictate terms for recovery may be even stronger. The risk is that the economy may end up more, rather than less dependent on unsustainable sectors, which are wreaking havoc in our towns and villages.

Chris Fearne is stronger now than before COVID-19

Buoyed by his excellent record during the health crisis, middle-of-the-road voters increasingly regard deputy Prime Minister and health minister Chris Fearne as the level-headed PM that Labour diehards denied them. The contrast between Abela’s populism and Fearne’s no-nonsense sobriety was clearly exposed in the crisis. While the two remained on the same boat when it came to the imposition and subsequent lifting of restrictions, there was a clear difference in style and discourse.

By declaring the COVID emergency over, Abela may have stolen Fearne of his thunder. Nevertheless, while Fearne’s stature had been diminished after the leadership contest, which saw Abela winning against all odds, Fearne emerges from the crisis stronger than ever. This may in the end prove beneficial to the PL as it could help it cater to two different constituencies.

But it also creates a potential reference point for dissent in the party. During Monday’s press conference, Abela still managed to rope in Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci and Chris Fearne, dispelling doubts that the latest lifting of restrictive measures did not enjoy their approval. In this way Abela still projects unity. This time round Abela was also more careful in his delivery, thus diminishing the contrast with his deputy prime minister.

Abela’s gravitas as a statesman with foresight is in question

Abela may have taken a step too far by declaring that the COVID-19 crisis is now behind us.

His announcement that that people fined for breaching social distancing rules could receive an amnesty through a sort of mechanism that allows for speedier petitions on fines, has already backfired amongst segments of the population. While his declaration was suggestive of an appeal mechanism similar to the petitions board on traffic and parking contraventions, the deliberate use of the word amnesty sent shivers down the spine of law-abiding citizens.

On Monday Abela explained that the amnesty he had in mind did not go beyond fine-tuning existing structures, but the problem with his reference to an amnesty felt like an insult towards not just those who sacrificed their social life, but also towards front-liners who risked their life for the community.

Abela has so far distinguished himself by milking the political benefits of a successful health strategy led by Fearne and Gauci, while at the same time sending mixed messages which at times risked undermining it by giving a false sense of security to the public in a bid to instil optimism and thus increase consumer spending.

In Abela’s case, appeals for caution and social distancing have always come across as an afterthought rather than as the focus of his speeches. As long as cases continue to decline, Abela will remain immune to criticism and is bound to reap political benefits from the success of a health strategy mobilised under his watch.

Moreover, his uplifting message of optimism and unity does strike a chord with a nation which was under severe stress. Like Muscat before, Abela seems to hit the right political notes to appeal to the nation’s populist instincts, even if he still lacks Muscat quick-witted eloquence. However, Abela’s gamble now clearly depends on whether Malta will face a second wave or not. For if this does happen, Abela’s claim that we can put COVID-19 behind us will increasingly sound like George Bush’s declaration that the war in Iraq was over just weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

It is unclear why Abela has put himself at the mercy of a virus. One possible answer is that Abela knows that if normality does not set in now, the economic cost of the crisis will be too heavy for him to carry without suffering political consequences.

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