[ANALYSIS] Abela vs Delia: Raised bars and boomerangs

What are the dangers facing the two leaders as they navigate their parties through troubled waters, JAMES DEBONO asks?

 Opposition leader Adrian Delia (left) and Prime Minister Robert Abela (right)
Opposition leader Adrian Delia (left) and Prime Minister Robert Abela (right)

Crunch-time for Abela

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 and his party’s national executive had no choice but to kick Konrad Mizzi from Labour’s parliamentary group. 

Yet despite acting under duress, the decision highlighted the contrast with his predecessor Joseph Muscat. It comes in the wake of a series of decisions which include the forced resignation of Chris Cardona from PL deputy leader. As a result, Abela’s stature has grown and so has his potential appeal to voters appalled by Labour’s track record on governance issues. By calling Mizzi’s bluff and getting the endorsement of the party’s executive, he has also strengthened his hold on the party. Yet he also faces a number of dangers.

The yardstick may boomerang

By sacking Emmanuel Mallia and Michael Falzon, Joseph Muscat had set the bar high for political propriety.

Neither of these two politicians had been found guilty in a court of law and both were sacked for cases of impropriety, which happened on their watch. Yet for what remains a mysterious reason, Muscat found himself unable to follow the same yardstick when dealing with far more serious cases involving Mizzi and Schembri, both of which had opened a company in a secretive jurisdiction like Panama and were eventually linked to Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black, which was listed as a client in their company declarations.

In so doing, Muscat lowered the bar of political propriety to the abyss. Abela has now raised the bar again by sacking Mizzi. Mizzi has protested that he was not given the opportunity to prove his innocence. The risk for Abela is that by sacking Mizzi from MP he has set a precedent for others in his parliamentary group.

Mizzi himself has argued that other members of the Cabinet are under investigation in what might have been a reference to finance minister Edward Scicluna, who was embroiled in the Vitals Global Healthcare scandal by the default of being finance minister. But in Mizzi’s case, the latest scandal came in the wake of other scandals and the shadow of permanent suspicion cast on him due to the Panama and 17 Black revelations, which are already based on documented proof and not hearsay.

Although Mizzi remains a sui generis case, Abela may face trouble if any his political allies are caught up in a similar situation where he would be expected to be as tough. He may face an even greater problem if his predecessor Joseph Muscat ends up in the same position as Mizzi.

Living with Konrad’s resentment

Konrad Mizzi remains unpredictable. He has shown insubordination by openly defying the party leader and refusing to leave the PL’s group out of his own free will, forcing Abela to call a meeting of the party’s executive to show Mizzi the red card. Even if Mizzi decides to remain an MP, he may still be a nuisance for Abela, especially if he uses his seat to curry favour among Labour supporters, and lash out at the Opposition and civil society groups to present himself as a victim of a conspiracy. Stripped of party discipline, Mizzi may become even harder to control in the absence of a strong resolve by the party to delegitimise him.

Only if the police start closing in on Mizzi’s financial transactions, he may end up cornered and humiliated. Moreover, the decision to kick Konrad Mizzi out has galvanised a movement for change in the Labour Party, spearheaded by young activists who are suspicious of dealings with big business while prioritising the moral question. This may become a force to be reckoned with.

Trouble in the fourth district

Despite the Panama revelations, Mizzi still received 4,968 votes from the fourth district, coming a close second after PL deputy leader Chris Fearne. Like Lorry Sant before him, Mizzi was still revered in the district despite harming his party’s reputation within the larger electorate. Although some of these voters may be shocked by the expulsion of their district heavyweight, these voters have nowhere else to go and will probably return to Labour possibly after finding a new district patron. In this case, the damage to Abela will be temporary. Abela may also be tempted to contest the district but this may irk Chris Fearne who has now emerged as the sole district heavyweight.

In the shadow of ‘ix-Xih’

It is clear that Abela is on a trajectory which puts him in collision course with Joseph Muscat, who was ultimately Konrad Mizzi’s only protector.

Yet it is very unlikely for Abela to go for a showdown with the former leader, who is still revered by the party’s grassroots. It is very unlikely for Abela to do a Sant and rebuke Muscat in front of a Labour crowd as the former Labour leader had done to Mintoff in 1998. Muscat also craftily engineered his exit from the leadership by ensuring that both contenders had to pay homage to him before party members made their choice.

Abela played along, presenting himself as the continuity candidate. But he may play the long game, slowly eroding his predecessor’s legitimacy through concrete actions and depriving Muscat of allies, while never uttering a word against him. One major problem for Abela is that he is still serving the mandate given to Muscat in 2017. An early election would reinforce Abela’s mandate, but that would make him even more hesitant on confronting Muscat.

Another problem is that Abela is perceived as owing his victory against Fearne to Muscat and his clan. If Muscat remains untouched by investigations on the scandals, Abela risks being seen as Muscat’s protector. If Muscat is in any way damaged, Abela risks incurring the wrath of a bitter former party leader. Abela’s best bet would be Muscat’s departure from the political scene. But to get there, Muscat may himself demand assurances that his legacy in the party is protected.

A boomerang for Delia

The Montenegro scandal was another opportunity for PN leader Adrian Delia to shine and stand out as a leader in the party’s battle against corruption. Yet once again, Delia has found himself on the receiving end of damaging allegations, which weigh heavily on his tenure as PN leader.

The damage for Delia is magnified because the accusation was first made by now Nationalist MP David Thake during a Xarabank programme in June 2019, when he asked Delia whether he knew that the PN had been offered €50,000 by Yorgen Fenech to prevent MEP David Casa’s re-election. Yorgen Fenech had immediately denied making this offer.

Nevertheless, the claim was repeated this month by the middleman in the Caruana Galizia assassination, Melvin Theuma, who testified in the public inquiry that Delia had been offered money by Fenech to halt Casa’s re-election. Earlier this week Joseph Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri, while testifying in the compilation of evidence against Fenech, said the businessman had told him that Delia asked for €50,000 in exchange for obstructing Casa’s re-election attempt.

Schembri also said that former PN head of media Pierre Portelli would regularly collect €20,000 payments from Fenech. ONE TV presenter Karl Stagno Navarra alleged on his Pjazza programme that Fenech had offered Delia €250,000 to stop Casa’s re-election.

A yardstick which backfired on Delia

Delia finds himself under a formal police investigation. This inevitably raises the question: can the Opposition afford to have a leader who is being investigated by the police? Delia may convincingly rebut arguing that he can prove his innocence and that it would be unfair for him to resign now and to be cleared from the allegations later. However, the problem is that his defence sounds uncannily similar to that of Mizzi and Schembri. In this way after expelling Mizzi, Abela is in a stronger position to turn the tables on Delia. For after ridding himself of the Mizzi albatross, Abela will argue that he has raised a higher bar than the PN itself.

Surely while allegations against Delia are based on hearsay, Mizzi and Schembri’s position are compounded by the undeniable existence of secret companies and their financial link to 17 Black. Delia can also turn the tables back on Labour by arguing that propagandists like Karl Stagna Navarra cannot lend credibility to claims by Fenech on him, while dismissing others which cast a dark shadow on Schembri and Muscat.

However, Delia’s position is further compounded by the baggage of Soho allegations he carried before becoming leader and by lingering doubts on his character among a substantial number of PN voters, activists and MPs. The nature of the latest allegation itself, that of being bribed to unseat the party’s most vocal MEP during the Panama saga, cuts right into the party divide.

Leading a divided party

Delia’s major problem remains that he does not even enjoy the unconditional support of his own parliamentary group.

Only on Friday, Nationalist MP David Thake insisted that political responsibility demanded that anyone in public office facing persistent allegations of wrongdoing should resign to defend themselves without tarnishing the office they hold.

With corruption, the aftermath of Panamagate, the Caruana Galizia probe remaining high on the agenda, and Abela himself distancing himself from the Muscat era, it has become even more imperative for the PN to be led by someone who is immune from any accusation of impropriety.

Yet the party remains in a limbo, with rebels fully knowing that any attempt to unseat Delia is bound to create a bloodbath, which would leave the party in even greater agony.

The end result is that Delia is likely to contest the next election as a lame duck. For even if the economy deteriorates, voters will still ask the question: who has the steadiest pair of hands: Abela who presides over a united party, or Delia who presides over a divided one?

Unity in Labour under Muscat had also come at a big cost. So, can Abela keep the party united while taking down its corrupt elements?