General election date: How Abela toyed with cry-wolf PN

As MaltaToday correctly anticipated in September when it called off rumours of an imminent election in the PN media, there will be no general election in 2021. So why did Robert Abela keep teasing the Opposition till Monday? asks James Debono

As soon as the budget was announced for October, MaltaToday had described an election at the end of November as “extremely unlikely”, despite persistent stories in the PN media which announced with certainty an election in November.

Logically the only real choice for Abela was either that of holding an election before the budget, at the risk of being accused of deceiving the country on the state of its finances; or an election next year in which the government would have already committed itself to the budget’s fiscal targets.

An election in November was unlikely because it would have meant a messy and unprecedented interruption of the budget debate. The last time an election was called for immediately after a budget was dictated by the collapse of the Gonzi administration after it failed to secure approval for the budget. Abela had no such compelling reason to seek electoral approval for a budget set to be approved by a parliament in which Labour has a strong majority.

Yet, had he opted for an election in November the government would have had to represent the budget for approval after being re-elected. This would have sowed doubts on whether the budget would be changed after the election, especially in view of clouds brewing on the international economic horizon with regards to energy and food prices, which may well undermine the budget’s optimistic projection on revenue from growth.

Moreover the proximity of the Christmas season made an election even more unlikely. Not only this would have undermined Christmas shopping and angered a category of self-employed which Labour wants on its side, but such an illogical decision would have further suggested that the government was desperate to avoid an election in 2022 for reasons not known by the electorate. In short, by now announcing an election in 2022, Abela has quashed speculation giving a clear indication that the government’s economic and fiscal projections are on track.

Surely Abela was economic with his words, enjoying himself at playing this game. His consistent message was that he would see the budget “implemented” in this legislature, which was in itself a clear indication of a 2022 election.

But at the same time he kept the Opposition guessing by refusing to rule out a 2022 election. Until the budget was actually presented, it was the Opposition – not him – that was fuelling rumours of an early election.

Cry wolf opposition?

It was the Opposition Nationalist Party that had been crying wolf about an imminent election in November since August. Sources in the party say that this fuelled by unmistakable signs of electoral mobilisation from the other side. “We could not risk being taken by surprise. We had to give the impression that we were a step ahead and the signs were all there.”

The repeated stories in the Nationalist Party’s weekly paper il-Mument which announced a November election with certainty since August, may well have been intended as a wake-up call for party activists. At that stage the party was trying to galvanise its base into action. Fearing an impending Labour landslide and a high abstention rate in its own ranks, the PN needed to oil its machine, keep up the political heat and galvanise an apathetic pale-blue vote.

Yet Abela did cross a line by keeping speculation rife after his own budget speech, in which he gave credence to a November election by saying: “It’s the people who’ll decide if this budget gets implemented”.

Sure enough, this could be interpreted in different ways. For if an election is held in the first quarter or even second quarter of 2022, it would have still not been implemented in full. By deliberately keeping speculation rife and not excluding a November election at that stage, Abela’s toying with the opposition started sounding infantile and irresponsible.

Abela may certainly not be blamed for a rumour spun by the Opposition in its own newspaper in summer. But by prolonging uncertainty in his own budget speech, Abela was now actively contributing to uncertainty. At that stage, even those who were ruling out an election in 2021 for logical reasons, started having their doubts as the country was gripped by electoral fever.

Deciphering Abela: Indecision or ruse?

That is why on Monday Abela had to put an end to the charade by excluding an election in 2021, something he had refused to rule out till Monday. Why did Abela wait so long to make this announcement?

One reason is that the temptation did exist. Based on current polling, Abela was within reach of a landslide comparable to Joseph Muscat’s in 2013 and 2017. In this he may have been torn between his instinct to secure the majority which gives him a strong mandate to rid himself of Joseph Muscat’s legacy, and his yearning to dispel the idea that Labour is unable to complete a whole legislative term.

He may have had pressure from inside his party to seize a favourable moment. Yet with very little signs of a recovery by the Opposition and a budget whose effects will be felt in the first months of the year, there was no compelling reason not to hold the election in the first quarter of next year.

Testing the waters

One more plausible reason for prolonging uncertainty on the election date, was that Abela wanted to keep the PN guessing, forcing it into premature election mode, already taxing on its limited resources.

He wanted their arsenal depleted before the real campaign starts. Talk of an imminent election has a clear impact on the Opposition, with PN leader Bernard Grech using his speech in parliament to unveil his own electoral proposals. It remains to be seen whether the PN has used all its policy ammunition or whether it has kept some proposals for the campaign itself.

Moreover expectations of an early election also exposed one big contradiction in the opposition: a fiscally conservative critique of the budget focused on debts and deficits, coupled by a bonanza of costly proposals, which flew in the face of the party’s fiscal concerns.

And by forcing the Opposition in campaign mode, Abela’s strategists have had the opportunity to see how the PN would operate in an electoral campaign, thus being in a better position to anticipate Grech’s moves in the real electoral campaign.

Still it was not just the PN, which took the bait. To Abela’s advantage, even in his own party speculation of an imminent election was rife with Abela holding his cards to his chest. This had the desired impact on ministers and candidates who with an election possibly, had no choice but to set the ground running with their constituency campaign.

And Abela can still keep the opposition on its toes, as speculation now is on whether Abela will call for an election by March or whether he will seek to dispel the idea that Labour is unable to complete an entire legislative term, elusive since 1987, by completing the full term and call the election in June. The only unpredictable factor over which Abela has no control is the pandemic.

What is sure is that as a result of the antics of both government and opposition, Malta remains entangled in a permanent and relentless electoral campaign carried out in the absence of rules limiting the power of incumbency and the dark influence of donors on parties, which need even more money to conduct longer and costlier campaigns.

One first concrete step to stop this kind of uncertainty would be the introduction of fixed-term parliaments as suggested by ADPD and Repubblika. But this remains unlikely. For neither the PL nor the PN are keen on limiting the PM’s power to call for an election at the most favourable moment.