Life after Muscat: Why the ex-PM will dominate the headlines… not the elections

Joseph Muscat is likely to remain a polarising figure for months and years to come but the next general election will not be about him. JAMES DEBONO analyses the political aftermath of Muscat’s public inquiry show of force and asks where does this leave Robert Abela, Bernard Grech and civil society?

Could such an astute politician be so blinded by trust and loyalty in his friends and allies?
Could such an astute politician be so blinded by trust and loyalty in his friends and allies?

Joseph Muscat’s combative performance in the Caruana Galizia public inquiry was a clear indication that he won’t disappear from the political scene any time soon. He even hinted that he would be setting the record straight in a book based on his own narrative of events leading to last year’s meltdown which he intends writing.

Sure enough, his performance last week galvanised his loyalist fan base and left detractors frustrated at the questions still left unanswered, either because of Muscat’s own economy with the truth or because of the inquiry’s lack of focus. Even the only significant revelation – that Muscat knew that his chief of staff was in business with Yorgen Fenech, then a major player in the energy sector through 17 Black – came without a clear timeline indicating when the former Prime Minister learned about this. Disarmingly Muscat simply suggests that back then he opted to keep his ‘hardworking’ chief of staff despite knowing about this business relationship.

Muscat conveyed the impression that he was unaware of any nefarious activities, including leaks about the Caruana Galizia murder probe, which happened on his watch in the close proximity of his office, and which in itself raises the question: how could such an astute politician be so blinded by trust and loyalty in his friends and allies?

But Muscat’s eloquence does not dispel the discomfort many on the left feel at his close and intimate ties with business elites, with Muscat going as far as saying that this is an inevitable feature of governance in an “economy run by no more than 10 people.”

The battle for Labour’s soul

It is clear that Muscat’s performance was not aimed solely at his detractors but was addressed at the Labour grassroots. The reaction on the social media indicates that Muscat once again succeeded in polarising public opinion, between those who dream of his head being presented on a plate, thus remaining prone to the wildest conspiracy theories; and those who not just absolve him from any wrongdoing but simply don’t any wrongdoing even in facts which have already been established.

This suggests that Muscat, bruised by last year’s disgraceful exit but still seeking vindication from within his own party, will remain a factor in the political scene. In short, Muscat’s goal remains that of not being disowned by his own party. This was after all his priority when he conditioned the PL leadership race by seeking the adulation of supporters in a farewell tour, which culminated in a party tribute on the eve of the election that saw Abela, perceived as Muscat’s favoured candidate, becoming leader.

Abela’s Muscat dilemma

While Muscat is likely to continue grabbing the news headlines, there is no great appetite in both major parties to battle each other on the basis of Muscat’s legacy.

In fact, while Muscat dominated the commentary sections of the Sunday newspapers, he hardly featured in any of the party leaders’ Sunday sermons. Sure enough, Abela won’t throw his revered predecessor under the bus (maybe not just yet…); neither does he show any inclination of denouncing Muscat for the culture of impunity he cultivated since Panamagate.

But Abela did give the police force a free hand in conducting investigations in a way which suggests that protagonists like Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Nexia BT no longer enjoy impunity for their actions. Surely this is bound to be a tortuous process which could end up disappointing Muscat critics even because of the sheer difficulty of proving suspicions of money laundering or obstruction to justice; on the other hand, loyalists might feel that Abela has succumbed to the “rule of law” crowd, by “attacking” some of their own.

By unleashing this process, Abela succeeded in slowly eroding the support for the so-called Panama gang, with the notable exception of Muscat, who remains a force to be reckoned with. The problems for Abela will start the moment investigations start to raise questions on Muscat himself. But that moment may remain elusive, especially in the absence of any trail linking him to Mizzi or Schembri. Muscat’s own testimony suggests no willingness on his part to sacrifice his own political legacy to defend them.

Ultimately Abela knows that only an electoral mandate can give him the free hand in his party to mould it in his image. Until that day he needs to keep a ‘movement’ of both Muscat loyalists and people who are increasingly uncomfortable with his legacy, united. He can do so simply by ignoring Muscat and shift political debate from the Panama saga to Labour’s management of the economy during COVID-19. In doing so he will appropriate and praise Muscat’s legacy, which left him enough money in the state coffers to avoid difficult choices during the pandemic.

Most likely, Abela will ask the electorate to reward his handling of the post COVID-19 recovery. One major balancing act will be restoring a semblance of socialist policies and environmental sustainability, with his overriding concern of keeping big business on board.

Grech’s realisation

On the opposite side, Bernard Grech too may have little interest in replicating the 2017 debacle, by trying to link Abela to Muscat. Polls so far suggest that Grech has won back the support of the anti-Delia faction while retaining the support of those who supported Delia.

Yet this brings Grech back to the same level of support enjoyed by Simon Busuttil. To narrow the gap Grech needs to win back the support of people who voted for Muscat’s party in 2013 and 2017. So while one would expect the PN to capitalise on any revelation of impropriety or corruption from the Muscat era and to press on for an investigation of the Electrogas and Vitals deals, Grech is already showing signs of prioritising bread and butter issues and modernising the party in a way which can keep liberals and enlightened conservatives on board.

Moreover, Grech has one notable advantage over Delia: he does not have to constantly prove his anti-corruption credentials with the Daphne crowd, simply because he enjoys their trust. This gives him a free hand in setting strategic priorities, like focusing on Gozo as a battleground district and pre-empting Abela by proposing the removal of the four-year waiting time for divorce, in a bid to exorcize his own conservative past.

Yet to get there, Grech may have to compromise with powerful lobbies, including developers and hunters, which are resented by many vocal Labour critics. Even any overtures to old PN district heavyweights may also erode his commitment to good governance. Yet to narrow the gap Grech has either to win back former PN voters captivated by Muscat’s shift to ‘business as usual’ politics, or Labour voters alienated by the shift to pro-business policies. He may end trying to do both at the risk of sounding inconsistent, to the extent that he was criticised by Abela for opposing residential development at Hal-Ferh on land granted to business interests by the Gonzi administration.

The return of civil society?

Maltese civil society, whose protests were crucial in the downfall of the Muscat government last year, may end up filling the gap, keeping watch not just on Muscat but also on the blurred lines between big business, politicians and organised crime which ultimately created the climate for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. But animosity towards Labour in general, a disposition to endorse any conspiracy, which puts Muscat in a bad light, and a dismissive approach towards any step towards justice taken under Abela may well further weaken their appeal among moderate voters who have more nuanced views.

On the other hand, groups like Graffitti, whose presence gave greater legitimacy to the December protests, remain crucial in emboldening local communities and destabilise the establishment’s ‘business as usual’ policies, forcing Labour to backtrack on some aspects of planning policies and decisions, particularly when Labour exponents joined the public outcry. The rush for a post COVID-19 recovery may well test Abela’s credentials on good governance and sustainability at a strategic juncture in the country’s political life.