[ANALYSIS] 365 days of Abela: Leaving a mark in adverse times

From his unorthodox way of expanding his talent, to forays in civil liberties, Robert Abela has so far avoided the curse of those overshadowed by larger-than-life predecessors. JAMES DEBONO identifies five traits that suggest the MP is becoming his own man

Robert Abela is the third prime minister in Malta’s post-independence history to take the reins of power from a sitting PM – the others having been Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who took over from Dom Mintoff after the constitutional crisis brought about by the 1981 election result; and Lawrence Gonzi, who took over from Eddie Fenech Adami after EU accession and left the PN deprived of a uniting battle-cry to keep liberals and conservatives together.

Like Abela both were overshadowed by the legacy of their predecessor and struggled to leave a mark of their own, with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici losing power in 1987 and leaving the party leadership in 1992, and Lawrence Gonzi scraping through the 2008 election only to be trounced by a new coalition of middle and working class voters forged by Joseph Muscat in 2013.

Although unlike Mifsud Bonnici and Lawrence Gonzi, Abela was not formally designated for the succession by his predecessor, it was his emphasis on “continuity” with the Muscat years in a short campaign against Chris Fearne that tipped the balance in his favour. But a year later Abela, despite being severely tested by the reverberations of Muscat’s disgraceful exit and the pandemic, Abela managed to sustain the successful coalition which supported Labour since 2013 while cautiously distancing himself from his predecessor’s antics.

For while Gonzi and Mifsud Bonnici were overshadowed by the more statesmanlike qualities of Mintoff and Fenech Adami, Abela risks being eaten away by the scandals inherited from Muscat. Yet in the face of adversity and uncertainty, a number of character traits defining Abela’s premiership are emerging: here are five defining ones.

To retain grassroots loyalty, Abela can sound divisive, tribal and more confrontational than his predecessor, at the risk of weakening a coalition becoming less wieldy or reverential

In his heyday Muscat projected himself as a unifier, keen on appealing to Nationalist voters while leaving the dirty work of rallying partisans to party stalwarts further down the chain of command. In contrast, Abela seems keener on proving his bellicose credentials with party faithful by belittling political opponents and showing a lack of courtesy.

Even his first encounter with Bernard Grech was dominated by his challenge on the Opposition leader to declare Malta “full up” for migrants, apart from refusing to congratulate Roberta Metsola on her European appointment. Abela did not even keep a distance from the PN’s internal troubles, reportedly having reported Grech’s tax troubles to the IRD.

And while he has put an end to the removal of flowers from the Caruana Galizia shrine opposite the law courts, he has refrained from any public recognition of the slain journalist. All this may be conditioned by Abela’s greatest political feat: that of removing and replacing the protagonists and enablers of Panamagate, including Konrad Mizzi and the former police commissioner, without causing havoc in his own party. Unlike Mifsud Bonnici in the 1980s, Abela has taken decisive steps to clean up his party’s dirty stables even if he remains reticent on expressing any damning political judgement on his predecessor, at the risk of sending mixed messages to Labour supporters.

But in his bid to clean up his government’s act he can’t afford to look soft and conciliatory towards the opposition. The risk is that people may end up judging Abela through his words and not his actions.

Abela also finds it difficult to bury the hatchet and move on even after resolving an issue. One clear example was praise for strike-breakers during the Malta Union of Teachers strike, even after reaching agreement for the reopening of schools. Reacting to criticism on his government’s COVID-19 strategy he showed signs of intransigence which defy the inroads Labour made in professional groups like teachers, nurses and other health workers. In so doing, he risks committing the same mistake as Gonzi, whose coalition was weakened by his inability to reach to professional bodies in 2013, alienated by his government’s arrogance in matters like the hike in energy bills.

Abela’s method of injecting new blood through co-options is unorthodox but he has shown regard for merit, independent judgement and progressive instincts

Abela has used co-options to consolidate his grip in the parliamentary group but has refrained from appointing ‘yes-people’, expanding his pool of talent and detach his government from Muscat’s administrtaion. Both Clyde Caruana and Miriam Dalli are respected for their competence. The appointment of Oliver Scicluna, who occupied the role of disability rights commissioner, may have been overshadowed by the farce of Gavin Gulia’s instant resignation after the casual election. But the end result was a welcome addition of a respected non-partisan disability campaigner to Labour’s group. Scicluna has suggested intends to retain his freedom of calling a spade a spade.

Even when it came to other posts like that of animal rights commissioner Alison Bezzina and domestic violence commissioner Audrey Friggieri, ironically in their respective roles they clashed with vocal supporters of the Labour government namely zookeeper Anton Cutajar and architect Robert Muscumeci.

And the overhaul of top posts in the police force has gone a long way in restoring public confidence in the institutions, even if it still has to be matched with concrete results on the Daphne assassination and Panamagate. While there have been signs of greater openness, in other sectors like public broadcasting Abela has shown a greater inclination to retain partisan control, and placing hunting and trapping in the portfolio of Gozo minister Clint Camilleri confirmed Abela’s subservience to the hunting lobby.

Like Gonzi, Abela strikes a balance between big business and communities on issues like the environment, in a situation already skewed in favour of development

Abela will keep striking the balance between development and the environment, without departing from an economic model whose growth is on steroids. Unsurprisingly this is reflected in the decision by big business groups close to the Muscat administration to ‘downsize’ their projects, as has been the case with the DB project on public land in Pembroke.

Aaron Farrugia’s appointment as environment minister was matched by an overhaul of PA boards and a reform of the controversial rural policy of 2014. But Abela failed in reining in Infrastructure Malta, which has shown increased disregard for the environment and agricultural land, leading prominent Labour figures like former leader Alfred Sant and former President Marie Louis Coleiro expressing their dissent. While road projects tend to be popular with motorists, Labour risks alienating both niches of principled voters and communities whose lives are ruined by such projects.

He has retained the positivity mantra even through COVID-19, generating optimism at the risk of raising expectations and sending mixed messages

Abela consistently took the role of the “optimist” in contrast to Chris Fearne’s more sober approach during the pandemic. While suggesting a contrasting approach between the former rivals, it may well have addressed the concerns of different categories of society. Abela’s optimism resonated with business groups as well as working class voters fearing for their future and lacking the comforts that make lockdown bearable.

But there were moments in which Abela was carried away, giving the impression that a quick return to normality was possible by summer thanks to the vaccine, despite unpredictable factors like more resistant COVID variants and difficulties in the supply chain of the vaccine. Abela is banking on the feel-good factor and a wave of optimism that is likely to grip the country when herd immunity is achieved.

On euthanasia and cannabis, he seems keen on keeping the progressive edge

Abela has killed speculation of being more conservative than Muscat. On abortion he reaffirmed the official line against its introduction, but his government started a reform of divorce laws to shorten the separation period as well as reaffirmed support for the legalisation of cannabis, and for a debate on euthanasia, two issues which may reopen a wedge between the PN and younger, more liberal voters.

Although Grech pre-empted Abela’s divorce move by embracing it, legalising cannabis and embracing euthanasia – which enjoys broader support than abortion – may be a step too far for conservatives in the PN. Abela too risks alienating more cautious elements in his own party, but the promise of legalising cannabis may well sway another niche of voters.

At the same time Labour’s liberalism on some civil liberties often contrasts with the illiberalism of its supporters’ rants against government critics, NGOs and the independent media. One dangerous trait is Abela’s willingness to deploy anti-immigration sentiment in his bid to silence critical voices questioning his migration policies. Abela could have left a more definitive mark had he invested the same energy in reducing the dose of partisan vitriol among supporters, possibly by coming to an agreement with the opposition on the future closure of partisan TV stations, and an overhaul of public broadcasting.

He has shown less enthusiasm for wide-ranging constitutional reforms strengthening checks and balances, and party financing laws, or to do away with the undue influence of big business on political decision-making.

In the end Abela is still on track to win the next election by a considerable margin despite taking over during political meltdown and facing a global pandemic. But it remains unclear whether he intends going down in history as a statesman or a successful partisan warlord.