Muscat, from statesman to nuisance: five takeaways from his interview

Has Joseph Muscat relegated himself from the once-statesman with European ambitions, to a nuisance factor who capitalises on his supporters’ undying love with a warning to his successor not to touch him and his friends?

“If they keep annoying me, I do not exclude it,” former Labour prime minister Joseph Muscat provocatively replied in an interview with the Times of Malta, when asked if he was mulling a return to Maltese politics.

He qualified that answer by excluding the possibility of contesting the upcoming general election or making a future bid for party leader, thus raising the question: was this rather empty threat simply made to hit the headlines? And against whom is this threat directed?

1. An empty threat to return to politics

Muscat must know his future political options are extremely limited, if non-existent. Short of being accepted as a Labour candidate in the next election, a prospect Muscat himself excludes, it is hard to imagine a former PM creating his own political movement to defend his legacy, as his friend Matteo Renzi tried unsuccessfully in Italy by founding Italia Viva, in a bid to destabilise his former party.

The only power Muscat has left is that of remaining an inconvenience or a nuisance for Abela. In some ways, it’s the kind of declaration reminiscent of a report of his plan to campaign for safe abortion back in January 2020 – which never materialised but acted as a warning shot against a conservative restoration in the party.

Muscat himself was frank in stating the intentions behind his not-so-cryptic reply: “I’m giving you something for people to think about. Because people say I’m going to contest, so I figured I’d say I don’t exclude it,” he replied. Muscat, himself a master of spin, was probably aware that such a statement would grab the headlines.

This may well be understood as a desire by a former leader to want to be talked about, even vilified, dissected and analysed, but also adulated by his army of loyalists who rally on Facebook whenever their beloved leader is under attack. In short: Muscat’s greatest fear seems that of being ignored and left to rot amid the revelations which slowly erode his legacy bit by bit. With long-time party activists like Desmond Zammit Marmara openly calling on the party to denounce Muscat, it has become clear that the tide is slowly but steadily turning against Muscat even in his own party.

This is exactly what Muscat tried to avert when he delayed his resignation in December 2019 by a few weeks to preside over the election of his successor: with both leadership contenders forced to pay him homage, in a choreographed farewell tour, culminating in a party tribute on the eve of an election which saw Abela defying predictions by trouncing Fearne.

2. Muscat and his image thrive with provocation and the cringe factor

Muscat is also an expert in the art of provocation. He knows that the more his detractors cringe at his declarations, the greater the adulation amongst rank-and-file Labourites who are still loyal to him. There is logic in accepting an interview on the Times of Malta and provide the sound bites which make critics and the opposition cringe, while banking on loyalists rallying in support to a beloved former leader. For Muscat knows that he remains a polarising figure, and that any attacks from the opposition, solidify his hold in the Labour party.

This is the kind of declaration which makes it harder for Abela to exorcise Muscat from the party. Muscat can still bank on “the love” of supporters who are completely oblivious to what has been written in the media and who will only have second thoughts the moment Robert Abela expresses his verdict on Muscat.

As has been the case in his political ascent Muscat remains in tune with the emotional side of politics which he sees as a personal, unmediated relationship between the leader and his people. “I see a chorus of people supporting me. While others might share different views, in the last weeks I’ve seen an unprecedented number of people supporting me. In reality, it’s irrelevant. I still feel the people’s love but I can’t gauge if I’m still popular or not”.

Moreover on the same emotional plane, he refuses to ditch ‘friends’ like Keith Schembri with whom he says he reconnected after he learned of his health problem. While some may see this as the ultimate confirmation of the dangers posed by friends-of-friends networks, Muscat may also be perceived as empathetic and someone who respects a code of honour which he sums up by saying: “I will definitely not ditch a person I know in this situation, knowing what he is going through. I might be in the wrong; I might be in the right. But I will definitely not ditch him.”

Ultimately the threat to re-enter politics, has to be seen in the context where Abela is silently distancing himself from the Muscat era, going as far as emphasising that “the way the State functions today is unrecognisable when compared to January 2020 and the years before”.

The reality is that after having resigned from office and after relinquishing his seat in parliament last year, Muscat has very little political capital left, except the adulation of his supporters. But Muscat must be aware of the fragility of this kind of support.

He knows that most Labourites turned against Dom Mintoff when he rebelled against Sant, albeit at a political cost in a scenario where the margins of victory were smaller. At this stage, the only latent threat Muscat poses to Abela is that of denying him of the opportunity of winning with a greater margin then himself in 2013 and 2017

 But while such a result could enlarge Abela and diminish Muscat, Abela can rest at night knowing that Muscat will never go that far as by doing so he would burn all the political capital he has left.

3. Robert Abela still cannot disown Muscat

Muscat can bank on Robert Abela’s ambiguity in distancing himself from his predecessor, without sending a strong message to Labour activists to do the same. In the same interview he said that he wants Abela “to have an open road in front of him”, while fully knowing that he was giving away soundbites which make it even more difficult for Abela to undermine Muscat’s reputation. 

This makes Abela the most likely target of Muscat’s threat to return to politics, not because of the reality of the threat but because of the emotions it stirs.

Abela’s political success hinges on his ability to appeal to both Muscat loyalists and segments in his electorate who now openly renege on Muscat’s legacy. Muscat’s threat makes this balancing act even more difficult for Abela, who probably wants to go to an election with a unified party behind him.

It is therefore no surprise that Abela and Labour officials have ignored Muscat’s empty threat to re-enter the political minefield. Abela, probably advised by those who recall the political cost of Alfred Sant’s confrontation with Dom Mintoff in 1998, does not want a showdown with his predecessor.

But clearly Muscat does not seem intent on letting Abela cut the umbilical cord tying him to his predecessor.

Significantly, Muscat denied taking sides in the 2020 PL leadership race, but was forthcoming in admitting that his wife Michelle spoke of her preference for Abela: “The truth is Michelle did speak with some people and expressed the fact she favoured Robert Abela. I did not intervene”. It was a reminder to Abela that he does owe the Muscat family something. Once again, this ties in with Muscat’s emphasis on personal and emotional connections in politics. After capitalising on support from the Muscat camp to secure the leadership, Abela would look ungrateful and ruthless if he does turn against Muscat and his friends.

4. Forever friends: who can Labour ditch a man who will not ditch Keith Schembri?

Muscat’s striking declaration that he will not ditch his friend Keith Schembri sounds like a call on his supporters to keep a place in their heart for Schembri.

Those who still love Muscat but have their doubts on Schembri (even while Muscat rightly emphasised that the truth can only established in the courts of law) have been reminded of the bond which still ties the former leader to Schembri.

This comes at a strategic moment when the police are under increased pressure to press charges on corruption allegations related to 17 Black and the Montenegro wind farm, and the leaks and cover-ups on the Caruana Galizia murder investigation. For in the absence of such arraignments one cannot help ask why Schembri was only arraigned on a case involving corruption in a private company which predates the Muscat government.

And it is here where Muscat falls back into the defence of blissful ignorance. On pertinent issues like possible corruption through 17 Black and Macbridge, Muscat gives the impression that he knows as much as any other common mortal; he fails to give a convincing answer on why Schembri attended Security Service meetings despite his friendship with Yorgen Fenech, with Muscat saying that he only became aware of the possible leaks involving Schembri after he resigned (even if this was the case Muscat should have known of the friendship between Schembri and Fenech).

Muscat even anticipates the logical conclusion that he was either corrupt to the core or plainly naive and thus incompetent: “Whether I was naïve, time will tell. But things aren’t always black and white. I believe my judgement of most people was correct. But there might have been others I wasn’t correct about. But I will not be the one who will dump Keith Schembri, for example, because he’s the flavour of the month, especially considering what he’s going through. I’m not that type of person”.

This raises another question: does Muscat’s political project boil down to personal connections in a sort of friend-ocracy? For the same Muscat who refuses to ‘ditch’ Schembri felt no qualms in ditching (at least for some time) other Labour politicians like Anglu Farrugia, Michael Falzon, Godfrey Farrugia and even Emmanuel Mallia, all of whom were asked to resign during his tenure as Labour leader or prime minister – Muscat lowered the high bar he had himself established after 2013 when his own friends were exposed in the Panama Papers.

5. The power of money: Muscat and Abela share the same yardstick

While the interview has touched a raw nerve among those who cringe at Muscat or those who adore him, it leaves many indifferent, simply because Muscat is now yesterday’s man who has lost the clout of power.

But a segment of the electorate, including Labour voters, does feel anger when faced with decisions skewed in favour of the same moneyed interests which Muscat cultivated. While Abela has taken some timid but decisive steps to distance himself from his predecessor without provoking his wrath, he has also apparently embraced Muscat’s business-friendly governance.

s demonstrated by decisions such as the tender for a yacht marina in Marsaskala, Abela is also dominated by the same interests. The good news in Muscat remaining in the news is that he stands as a reminder of the logical conclusion of subservience to moneyed interests, from the shackles of which Abela has not yet freed the party.

Ultimately Muscat’s emotional connection with “friends” like Schembri, who had their own circle of friends of friends, was a key peg in cosying up to business interests who came to see Labour as an opportunity rather than a threat.