If not Egrant, then what triggered the 2017 snap election? Seven key points

Did Joseph Muscat deliberately choose not to serve a full term in office or was he grabbing a favourable polling moment? And if not Egrant, did 17 Black trigger the 2017 election?

Joseph Muscat greeting Labour supporters during the 2017 election
Joseph Muscat greeting Labour supporters during the 2017 election

Keith Schembri says Joseph Muscat was planning an election in February 2017, weeks before the Egrant allegations made by Daphne Caruana Galizia. But did he deliberately choose not to serve a full term in office to exploit a favourable moment in the polls and ensure a big win; or was he keen on pre-empting revelations which had yet to come out?

In his appearance this week in the public inquiry on the Caruana Galizia assassination, Schembri was asked about a 2017 election data that Caruana Galizia has speculated on, pencilled in months before the Egrant affair. Schembri replied: “I never said Daphne Caruana Galizia wasn’t right.”

“You are a politician and you work on numbers. We had a sizeable lead over the Opposition and then Egrant came out and destabilised the country. At the end of the day the people are always sovereign,” Schembri replied.

1. His statement tallies with what Daphne Caruana Galizia had claimed in her blog

On 17 May 2017 she claimed that at least one month before the Egrant story broke, “which means somewhere around the middle of March”, Muscat had planned to call the general election “for between 27 May and 17 June”. She also claimed that the Labour Party already had its campaign slogan by the first week of April revealing that the domain www.laqwazmien.com was registered on 7 April. She asked “What drove Muscat to call a general election after just four years in power?” going on to suggest that “something cracked in February, and in March he decided to call a general election”.

2. It belies Muscat’s claim that Egrant triggered the election, or that Yorgen Fenech knew the election date since 2016

Muscat announced the 3 June election during the 1 May meeting on Castille Square, 10 days after Caruana Galizia alleged that his wife as the owner of Egrant and was on the receiving end of funds from the Azeri ruling family. He presented the election as a way to restore stability and protect jobs threatened by the Egrant allegations. “I will not allow one single place of work to be lost because of the uncertainty that others try to plant,” Muscat, said, also throwing down the gauntlet for Simon Busuttil, saying he would resign if only a shred of truth emerges from what he dubbed “the biggest lie in Maltese political history”. Subsequently Joseph Muscat was adamant in refuting Yorgen Fenech’s claim that he knew an election was due in December 2016: “If Yorgen Fenech knew the election date, then he knew it before me,” Muscat quipped when asked about the claim in June 2020. Muscat sticked to the same line in his testimony to the inquiry which actually does not contradict Schembri’s (and Caruana Galizia’s) timeline as both suggest that the decision was taken in February and not in December as claimed by Yorgen Fenech. Yet it is also possible that the idea of an early election had been considered for some time and Fenech may have got inkling thanks to his friendships with Schembri and other people in power.

3. Egrant did not derail Muscat’s already established election plans. Instead they seem to have reinforced them

Caruana Galizia’s Egrant allegations, later disproven by a magisterial inquiry, did not derail Muscat’s election plans. Decisions on election dates are never meant to be cast in stone but may be changed according to political convenience. This means that Muscat could well have decided to stop his election plans if he thought that Egrant would harm his prospects. Instead Muscat skilfully turned Egrant to his advantage, presenting it as an affront to his family’s honour and taking full advantage of the absence of any hard evidence or documents to back the claims.

In fact Muscat announced the snap election a few days after a weak performance by Simon Busuttil in a Xarabank debate with Muscat. This raises the question whether the Egrant allegations were indeed a ruse: either by the PN and Caruana Galizia to prevent an early election with the PN still in difficulty; or by way of snap election making it hard to elicit more solid revelations on the 17 Black connection. Muscat may have preferred an election fight on the unsubstantiated Egrant than the problematic 17 Black. Ironically it was Caruana Galizia who provided Muscat with the trigger to call the snap election, which he had already planned.

4. The election decision coincided with Caruana Galizia’s first reference to 17 Black

Caruana Galizia first referred to 17 Black in February 2017. The cryptic post linked 17 Black to Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, tourism minister Konrad Mizzi and former EU commissioner John Dalli. The revelation was surely noticed by Yorgen Fenech, who in March changed 17 Black’s name to Wings Development Ltd. Significantly in a comment left underneath the post in reply to a deleted comment Caruana Galizia referred to “a couple of the owners of their magic new corruption power station: and it’s Yorgen Fenech. So thanks for this, because it really figures.” Back then the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU) already had a Panama Papers e-mail in its possession showing how Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi planned to receive $2 million in a single year from 17 Black and another company of unknown ownership called Macbridge. The timing suggests that the election was planned under the dark shadow cast by 17 Black. Yet, having survived Panamagate, did Muscat have reason to fear further revelations linked to the secret offshore companies owned by his chief of staff and Konrad Mizzi?  This also raises a crucial question: did Muscat even know about his chief of staff’s link to Fenech’s 17 Black back in February 2017? If yes, he may have had reason to fear Daphne’s cryptic post. Muscat had denied knowing anything about the company back then. Still, judging from hindsight further revelations linking Fenech to 17 Black in November 2018 did not in any way diminish Muscat’s popularity to the extent that he won MEP elections in 2019 with a landslide.

5. The snap election coincided with Malta’s presidency of the EU

Muscat was riding high on Malta’s EU presidency, basking in the international limelight and the praise showered on Malta’s preparedness by then EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker in January.  Juncker had also disappointed the opposition by abstaining from any reference to Panamagate during his visit to Malta. Yet, deliberately holding an election right in the middle of the EU Presidency, was not exactly orthodox. As Politico noted in December 2017 “calling a snap election only months after the presidency had begun didn’t go down well in Brussels”. The only other EU country to have an election during its presidency was Poland when Donald Tusk was prime minister — but even then, it was required by the Constitution, not the whim of its ruling party. Yet thanks to Egrant, Muscat could justify calling the election while still winning praise for what Politico had described as “his government’s diplomatic prowess”.

6. The choice of an election date coincided with a showdown between Simon Busuttil and the DB group and a favourable polling moment for Labour and Muscat

Keith Schembri suggests that the decision to call a snap election was informed by Labour’s polling lead. Muscat could have simply been seizing a favourable polling moment to guarantee a victory of the same magnitude of 2013.  For while Labour’s re-election in the forthcoming was never in question, Panamagate had left a dent and raised the prospect of the PN narrowing the gap. But by March 2017 the PN had lost steam and was on the receiving end of fallout from a showdown with the DB Group who in reaction to Busuttil’s stance against the transfer of the ITS land in Pembroke revealed that the PN was receiving donations from the same group, possibly in violation of party financing rules. The PN was still reeling from the scandal when the egrant allegations surfaced in April.

7. A four-year term fitted with Muscat’s 10-year calendar plan

In November 2015 Muscat had already hinted that he intended serving for 10 years as PM. The self-imposed 10-year timetable had already made it unlikely for Muscat to serve two full terms as this may have meant that Labour would have had to vote in a new leader immediately after an election in 2023.

This raised the possibility of him opting for a shorter four-year term, to give a breathing space to the party to elect a successor sometime during his second term with Muscat leaving the stage in full glory. Muscat never managed to fulfil his timetable, having had to resign in disgrace after serving only six years in office. But this may have been a factor among many others.

Yet in the end Muscat goes down in history as the PM who won elections with the greatest margins but who was unable to complete a single whole legislative term. This itself raises the question, why would a PM obsessed with his legacy deny himself the chance of completing a five-year term? Or did he prioritize winning big over governing for long?

For in the end, despite winning big in every election he contested as party leader, he ended serving for even less time than he had originally planned.