Joseph Muscat’s guessing game on his political exit

Joseph Muscat will be surely resigning from parliament in the next months but once again he seems keen on ensuring that this is done on his own terms. What is his end game? Asks James Debono

Former PM Joseph Muscat
Former PM Joseph Muscat

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat may be exercising leverage to ensure his legacy is not tarnished within his party, by keeping everyone guessing on his departure date.

Muscat is fully aware that even in normal circumstances, a former leader should retreat from the political scene to allow his successor space for manoeuvre. But when former leaders hang on, the risk of an epochal clash with their successor becomes nearly inevitable, as was the one between Alfred Sant and Dom Mintoff.

That may not exclude a political comeback in a less important role after some time in hibernation. But Muscat will not be vacating his seat in normal circumstances. Some of his closest allies are implicated in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and in several corruption probes, and pertinent questions directed at himself remain unanswered.

A diminished has-been?

Muscat’s departure becomes even more urgent for Robert Abela. The persistent presence of the former leader has become a liability for his successor. Even in Labour circles, Muscat is seen as a diminished, albeit feared political titan who is now a has-been.

Among activists, many are still grateful for Muscat’s accomplishments both in terms of economic growth and electoral success, but privately some doubt Muscat’s ignorance of what was happening around him; while others who believe he was not directly involved, still lament his poor political judgement. The “if-he-was-not-guilty-himself-then-he-was-the-greatest-fool” sentiment is gaining currency among Labour’s young Turks. But this is not the case with grassroots followers who still perceive Muscat as a larger than life figure. And this makes it harder for Abela to tackle Muscat. For while among the party’s top brass Muscat is a wounded figure, he is still adored by the grassroots.

Muscat’s waiting game

Muscat has played his cards well in the past weeks, remaining silent after securing a ‘glorious’ exit from the leadership despite his disgraceful exit in December, and after conditioning the race in a way which largely benefitted Abela and penalized Chris Fearne. He reminded the country of his successful economic policies by returning as a policy advisor to Abela during the COVID-19 crisis.

The problem for Muscat is that he knows that vacating his parliamentary seat will come at a cost. It would mean that he would have less leverage over Abela. For even if he refrains from using his parliamentary platform, Muscat can still use it if threatened, as he did when faced by hard-hitting but unproven innuendos and allegations by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi. His departure would clear the way for Abela to close the Muscat chapter. It is also clear that Abela wants to close this chapter without spilling any blood. Abela already went a long way by dismissing Mizzi from the parliamentary group, even if he was not strong enough to persuade Mizzi to vacate his seat. Yet in that case, Abela did not bow down to Mizzi’s defiance and did not refrain from crushing Mizzi by a vote in the party’s executive. But Abela knows that Muscat is a completely different kettle of fish.

Muscat’s place in history

Ironically, the greater Abela’s determination to close the chapter, the more urgent it becomes for Muscat to ensure that his departure is not perceived as an admission of guilt. On the other hand, Abela can’t underestimate Muscat’s hold on party supporters, who were promised continuity and were repeatedly asked to hail Muscat during the December crisis. Therefore, Abela’s best bet would be for Muscat to go down on his own accord.

So reports that Muscat has postponed his resignation to after the summer, may well be an indication that the former Labour leader is exercising pressure on Abela not to say anything which tarnishes his legacy.

Moreover, Muscat has a whole history of keeping people guessing about his future. It was Muscat who first indicated that he would only serve two legislatures. Then in February 2018 he clearly indicated that he would depart before the next election. But after failing to snatch an improbable EU post (which he actively lobbied for despite knowing he was holding a bomb that would have blown apart the country’s reputation had he succeeded) Muscat kept his supporters guessing as a campaign by party stalwarts asking him to change his mind was set in motion.

Then, for the first time in his political career, Muscat was overtaken by events and forced to resign by his own Cabinet. Despite taking big risks, including keeping Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri around him despite clear indications of political impropriety and an association with the businessman accused of the Caruana Galizia assassination, Muscat could still be obsessed by his place in history.

Abela’s catch-22

This explains why Abela is so keen to make a distinction between Mizzi and Muscat.

While this can be partly explained by Abela’s own friendship and loyalty towards a former leader who trusted him (and by his belief that Muscat is not implicated in the assassination itself) it can also be partly a Machiavellian calculation, a way to ease Muscat’s departure by softening the impact.

But in doing so Abela is risking being overtaken by events and new revelations. And by not rocking the boat and ensuring that Muscat’s final departure is as glorious as his resignation from the leadership, Abela could end up having a vested interest in protecting Muscat’s legacy, something which would be fodder for conspiracy theories of a diabolical pact linking the house of Muscat with the house of Abela.

In this way Abela would not give closure to his party and the opportunity to reassess the real legacy of the Muscat period, which saw the party drifting away not just from socialism but also from basic norms of political decency. With his legacy unscathed among Labour voters, Muscat knows that even if he leaves parliament, his influence on Labour supporters will remain strong.

This is why Abela can’t afford to lose an opportunity, to respectfully express a political judgement on the Muscat era. He came closest to this when describing his predecessor’s decision to keep Mizzi a minister, a mistake. But this came across as a reaction to the Montenegro scandal. A more thorough internal discussion based on a report investigating the political legacy of the Muscat years and the lessons learned from it, would go much further in ensuring that Abela can turn a new page in the Labour party’s glorious history of social reforms, marred twice by institutionalized corruption – first in the 1980s and with even greater intensity in the past few years.

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