[ANALYSIS] How Muscat became the albatross around Abela’s neck

Robert Abela’s decision to ditch Konrad Mizzi has sent a clear sign of discontinuity from the impunity characterising the Muscat era. How far will Abela now go in ditching Joseph Muscat’s toxic legacy? JAMES DEBONO asks. 

The shadow of Joseph Muscat will be hard to shake off for Robert Abela
The shadow of Joseph Muscat will be hard to shake off for Robert Abela

The decision to kick Konrad Mizzi out from the PL’s parliamentary group happened under duress, as a reaction to the Montenegro scandal which happened under Mizzi’s watch. Yet it comes at a key moment where Abela had to choose; between ignoring the writing on the wall, taking comfort in the lead he enjoys in the polls while still paying homage to Muscat and his allies, or finally taking decisive action against Mizzi.

By choosing the latter course, and bringing the party’s executive to overwhelmingly support him, Abela has now raised expectations that the Muscat era is over and that the country is entering a new phase of reforms. Yet it remains a perilous course for Abela who came to be elected Labour leader by presenting himself as the “continuity candidate” . 

Joseph Muscat did his best to protect his legacy. Despite his disgraceful exit in December 2019 after being forced to resign prematurely right in the middle of an investigation he had promised to resolve on his watch, he secured a hero treatment by party activists on the eve of an internal election. Continuity seemed to have won the day Robert Abela defeated the more seasoned Chris Fearne who campaigned on a good governance platform, amid strong indications of support from the Muscat camp, as suggested by social media messages by Keith Schembri’s ally Neville Gafà.

By conditioning a short leadership campaign held during the festive season, and refusing to resign immediately, Muscat visited the party clubs in a farewell tour that ensured none of the contenders could question his legacy. To win, they had to hold his hands to the acclaim of Labour supporters.

The party was unable evaluate what had gone wrong despite revelations related to the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination plot, which clearly suggested that Muscat was – at best – a naïve politician who allowed the wolves inside Labour’s sheep pen. Or at worse, the leader of the same pack that had spent the previous years on a rampage.

Even if not directly involved, too many sinister things happened on his watch: a minister and his chief of staff were involved in a series of controversial deals, ranging from the sale of public hospitals, to a wind farm in Montenegro, being caught red-handed opening secret companies in Panama used by the global corrupt elites, and both linked to the secret 17 Black company, owned by Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind of the assassination of a journalist who was hounding them. 

Today, despite his seriously clouded judgement in not taking any action against Schembri and Mizzi, and endangering an entire country’s reputation, Muscat is still revered in the party as a hero.

Traitors or stalwarts? 

Muscat, and to a lesser extent Mizzi and Schembri, today can rely on a dedicated following of loyalists who see them as party stalwarts and victims of fake news in the media. 

Till yesterday the party had not disowned any of them them. So Labour was paying the price of being associated with them. Without an internal process that clearly re-evaluates their legacy, the average Labour voter will regard Muscat as a hero and a victim, rather than someone who has a lot to answer for, in terms of both political judgement and possibly direct or indirect involvement in the scandals which rocked his administration.

Of the three, only Keith Schembri has resigned from party member out of his own will, without incurring any official reprimand from the party except some ridicule from some honest party officials over his claim to have lost his mobile. 

Both Muscat and Mizzi remain MPs. Muscat, styling himself with “an office” in representation of the erstwhile PM, was drafted as a consultant to Abela for the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. Abela was quick to stop Mizzi from enjoying the same benefit at the MTA, his former ministerial portfolio. But nobody so far has been punished for a contract devised before the leadership contest. 

But now that the Enemalta-Montenegro scandal is linked to Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black, the same company identified as a target client of the Panama companies, Robert Abela backed by the party’s national executive has finally taken action by removing Mizzi from Labour MP, an action which may start an internal process leading to a re-evaluation of the legacy left by Muscat in office. 

This could well take the form of an internal party inquiry with clear recommendations, similar to those held after election defeats. 

Abela’s dilemma 

Nevertheless, what would Abela gain from cutting his umbilical cord to Muscat? 

One major advantage could be winning the trust of middle-of-the-road voters who appreciate Labour’s generally positive performance in a number of sectors but are completely alienated by corruption and the dark shadow cast on Castille by the assassination of Caruana Galizia. This could even increase Abela’s majority to complete the transformation of Labour into Malta’s largest mainstream party of government. 

Another advantage would be to consolidate Abela’s leadership by neutralizing elements whose first loyalty remains towards Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi, creating a firewall from Schembri’s own defence strategy, which was bound to take the form of an attempt to win sympathy among Labour voters.

For Mizzi’s defiant refusal to vacate his parliamentary seat after being kicked out from the PL’s parliamentary group suggests that he may still harbour delusions of a political comeback.

The politically astute Schembri must know his chances of navigating through the investigations depends on the absence of meaningful political change, which would otherwise increase pressure on investigators to close the circle around him and other prominent members of the Muscat administration. 

This was amply clear in Schembri’s court testimony in which he not only professed his innocence by completely dismissing the circumstantial evidence linking him to the plot, but used it to deligitimize critics, journalists and even the Opposition leader with innuendos on side issues, unrelated to the assassination plot but which are politically effective to rally Labour supporters and muddle public opinion.

The firewall Abela needs 

Without the firewall between Labour and the Muscat era, party supporters will easily fall in the trap of supporting Schembri – who in the minds of MOR voters is now fatally associated with corrupt dealings and the assassination plot. 

For Labour, an unofficial campaign supporting Schembri’s innocence would be extremely counterproductive. While the government is obliged to respect the presumption of innocence, including Schembri’s, Abela is obliged to send a strong message of political atonement.

By distancing himself from the Muscat era, Abela would prove he does not owe anything to his predecessor, a perception which may return to haunt him every time a serious accusation of impropriety surfaces. 

So why was Abela so reluctant to act before taking the decisive action of kicking Mizzi out ? 

One major reason is that he may fear Muscat as a possible source of internal instability. His government could also lose legitimacy the moment Labour voters in 2017 feel betrayed, which would oblige him to defend Muscat’s legacy especially during more difficult economic times. 

Abela may also be taking comfort from polls which suggest that rule-of-law issues have little impact on the electorate; why risk alienating Muscat loyalists when he commands such a large majority? 

Yet it is this strong majority which actually gives Abela the strength to act decisively, even though he remains vulnerable to events over which he may lack control. 

The danger is that if Abela remains hostage to Muscat’s legacy, the greater will be the temptation to protect it. That would have made him a lesser politician than Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who at least had the courage to show Lorry Sant the way out in 1992, paving the way for the cleansing undertaken by Alfred Sant after his election as party leader. It was only such decisive action, which erected a firewall between the party and the violent and corrupt elements that ate up Labour’s soul in the 1980s, that made the party electable in 1996. In this sense, Labour’s enduring popularity, despite all the scandals of the past year, may prove to be the ultimate stumbling block, something for which the opposition is ultimately to blame for failing to present a coherent counter-narrative. 

The decision to kick Mizzi out of the party suggests that Abela is still in time to save his legacy and leave his mark as a reformer.