After Schembri’s asset freeze and arrest, is Robert Abela tightening the noose around Muscat?

Instead of digging in his Brutus’s dagger, Robert Abela prefers watching the noose get tighter around his predecessor. JAMES DEBONO asks how far will Abela go, and will he turn to the polls to strengthen his electoral mandate

Is this a sign of Abela reacting to force majeure, or does he smell an opportunity to consolidate his leadership?
Is this a sign of Abela reacting to force majeure, or does he smell an opportunity to consolidate his leadership?

To secure his election as Labour leader, Robert Abela promised continuity with the Joseph Muscat era, but his administration sent strong signs of discontinuity.

The latest development sees the police investigating Keith Schembri and Nexia BT over money laundering following the conclusion of a magisterial inquiry requested by former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil.

In what must have been a shock to Joseph Muscat loyalists who never doubted Schembri’s innocence, Schembri was arrested in his own home on Tuesday morning at 12:30am – interestingly it was One TV which first reported the dynamics of the home arrest.

Is this a sign of Abela reacting to force majeure, or does he smell an opportunity to consolidate his leadership? The evidence suggests that it is a bit of both. Abela is on a trajectory which takes him away from Muscat, but his pace is being set by events.

Despite his cautious approach, Abela managed to carry out what increasingly looks like a silent revolution. In the space of eight months he has effectively changed the political landscape in a way which would have looked unthinkable just a few months ago.

Abela’s silent revolution

The more qualified Angelo Gafà has now replaced disgraced police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar. The party has expelled Konrad Mizzi from the parliamentary group and has elected Daniel Jose Micallef as deputy leader, a young politician with no skeletons in his closet, instead of Chris Cardona. Victoria Buttigieg has also replaced Attorney General Peter Grech. Neville Gafà, a close ally of Schembri, has had his OPM job terminated.

Nationalist MEP David Casa reported that the Maltese authorities filed a complete request for information on Yorgen Fenech’s secret company 17 Black with the UAE authorities. The government stopped silly antics like removing flowers from the Daphne Caruana Galizia makeshift shrine in Valletta.

The cherry on the cake was news on Monday that the criminal court had instructed the entire host of Malta’s financial institutions, asset managers and investment fund managers, to grant access to police investigators to any assets they hold in the name of Keith Schembri, the former chief of staff to ex-prime minister Joseph Muscat, as well his family. This was a clear sign that the police and the Attorney General have finally embarked on an investigation on Schembri, a decision which casts a dark shadow on Abela’s predecessor, Muscat, who had placed Schembri at the heart of the Maltese State.

Actions speak louder than words

Abela has not expressed any political judgement on the Muscat era. He has so far failed in encouraging any party discussion to assess the Muscat legacy. The closest to expressing a political judgement was the expulsion of Konrad Mizzi from the parliamentary group, but even this action was surgical and presented as a way of protecting the party from the Montenegro wind farm scandal.

Abela’s approach is one which lets the institutions tighten the noose around Muscat allies, who up to a few months were considered untouchables. This also indirectly increases the pressure on Muscat to give up his seat in parliament. In this way, without irking Muscat’s supporters by offending their idol, Abela has taken away the carpet from under Schembri, Mizzi and ultimately Muscat’s feet.

Pressure is mounting on Joseph Muscat as the noose tightens around his former allies in government
Pressure is mounting on Joseph Muscat as the noose tightens around his former allies in government

While doubts persist on whether Abela will (if need be) also throw Muscat under the bus, so far his actions have been carried out with surgical precision in a way which avoids shedding blood. What is clear is that Abela is doing nothing more than what is expected of any EU leader, but his actions still amplify the contrast with his predecessor.

The downside is that Abela will not do more than the bare minimum of what is expected of him, something which makes it unlikely for him to embark on a full-scale investigation of the deals involving Schembri, Muscat and Mizzi.

This may also explain why Abela is wary of the public inquiry on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, which has increasingly assumed the role of a forum investigating the Muscat system of government. By sounding reservations on the scope of the inquiry, Abela still pays lip service to Muscat loyalists by refusing to extend the public inquiry on Caruana Galizia’s assassination beyond December.

Abela seems wary of a judicial inquiry pronouncing a judgement on the Muscat years. He also refrains from one symbolic step which would go a long way in healing wounds, that of paying homage to Daphne Caruana Galizia at her murder site, in the same way as EU Council President Charles Michel did a week ago.

Will Robert throw Joseph under the bus?

While never questioning Muscat’s legacy, any investigation of Keith Schembri’s financial undertakings is bound to cast Muscat in a negative light. While any public criticism of Muscat would sound premature to Labour loyalists, any confirmation of allegations first made by former PN leader Simon Busuttil under the watch of a Labour government, would inevitably diminish Muscat in the eyes of his supporters.

But Abela will not be the one to wield the dagger of Brutus in front of Muscat. Pressure is bound to increase on Muscat to move aside. Abela has now cornered Muscat, whose resignation from parliament will inevitably be viewed as an admission of guilt. It remains to be seen whether Abela will agree to sugar-coat Muscat’s bitter pill by heaping praise on his predecessor or whether he will let his silence speak volumes.

A new mandate for Abela?

Abela knows that taking action on Schembri will strengthen his appeal among middle of the road voters who still consider Labour as more stable than the opposition, but want closure on the corruption scandals of the past years.

Decisive action against Schembri could also be a prelude for an early election, which would give Abela the legitimacy required to break with the Muscat past. For till now Abela has inherited Muscat’s mandate. To disavow the legacy of his flawed predecessor, he may well need a mandate of his own.