Robert’s election dilemma: a November quickie or prolonged foreplay

A November general election is possible but it can only mean one thing: an incomplete budget process. Kurt Sansone looks at the budget timeline and how this may be affected if Robert Abela goes for a November vote. 

Robert Abela has a tight window to call a general election in November and if he does, it will mean an incomplete budget process. 

Finance Minister Clyde Caruana will present Budget 2022 tomorrow. 

Opposition leader Bernard Grech will deliver his reaction on 18 October and the day after, Abela will give his speech and parliament will be asked to vote on the budget. 

However, between 20 October and 15 November, parliament will be holding two sessions per day between Monday and Wednesday to debate the budgetary estimates of the individual ministries. A vote on each ministry will then be taken in one session before parliament adjourns for the Christmas holidays. 

This budget timeline will weigh heavily on Abela’s mind as he considers his options. 

The Prime Minister can call a general election whenever he deems fit but there is a minimum of 33 days between parliament’s dissolution and voting day that must be respected. 

This means that if Abela chooses to go to the polls on Saturday 20 November, he would have to call the election on Tuesday 19 October at the latest. 

This means that after delivering his budget reaction and waiting for MPs to vote on the budget, Abela will head straight to San Anton Palace to request the President dissolve parliament and issue the writ for a general election. 

If the Prime Minister opts for an election on Saturday 27 November, he can call the election on any day until Tuesday 26 October. 

Assuming that Abela will want to avoid an election during December so as not to disrupt Christmas shopping and festivities, the November dates mean that his government will not be able to approve the budget in all its stages. The debates on the ministry estimates will be cut short or not held at all. 

Pope Francis 

Speculation on a November election was rekindled last week when news came through that Pope Francis postponed his Malta visit to next year. 

It is understood that the Vatican was concerned over the possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the winter months. But the Holy See appears to have also been influenced by persistent rumours of a November vote and was not keen on a papal visit just after an election. 

This has fuelled talk of a November election despite Abela having said that he would want to see the budget being implemented. 

Several sources within the Labour Party have told MaltaToday that opinion is split within the party as to whether Abela should call an election now or wait until March next year. 

“The decision rests with Robert Abela and it’s hard to decipher what he may have in mind because most of us are still trying to fully comprehend his modus operandi,” one of the sources said. 

The two considerations 

Abela can capitalise on a good budget and favourable polls to call an election in November, even though the budget process will be incomplete. 

An electoral victory with a bigger margin than 2017 will give Abela greater legitimacy within the party and enable him to exit with flying colours from the shadow of his predecessor. 

“That is a prospect any leader will not easily discard, especially with polls consistently giving the Labour Party a better lead than the 2017 general election,” another source said. 

But there is also another consideration that Abela will probably make and that is Labour’s inability to last a full term. 

The 1996 Labour administration, which Abela’s father George formed part of, only lasted 22 months and the 2013 administration was cut short a full year before the election was due when Joseph Muscat opted to go to the hustings in the wake of the Egrant allegations. 

Abela may be tempted to prove that Labour can last a full term and call an election anytime between March and June next year. 

It will also give people time to enjoy the benefits of the budget that will be presented tomorrow. 

Whatever path Abela chooses the only certainty so far is that Budget 2022 will be this administration’s last. Whether it is approved in its entirety may be a little detail on the road to election day.