Looking back at 2021 | Seven things we learnt about Abela and Grech

Christmas Specials • COVID-19, the never-ending fall-out from the Muscat era, and a tombola of election dates that forced the hand of both leaders: 7 similarities and contrasts between Bernard Grech and Robert Abela

Our special edition, Christmas bumper issue is on sale today or online here, featuring the best round-up of 2021 by our staff writers

1. Both are struggling with their predecessor’s legacy

Robert Abela has also shown remarkable ability in slowly but steadily detaching himself from his predecessor’s legacy without disowning him. He manages to keep on board Muscat loyalists and critically-minded Labour and MOR voters who have lost faith in the former leader.

The arrest of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri and ten others, including Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna and Karl Cini, on money laundering and corruption related to a case of alleged corruption involving Allied Newspapers, went a long way in clearing the air from the impunity which characterised Malta under Joseph Muscat. This showed that the change in police top brass under Abela had started bearing fruit.

But as months pass it is becoming harder to explain the failure to arraign Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi over corruption cases connected to Labour projects, simply on grounds that police are still gathering evidence. Abela can play for time, perhaps hoping that when the shit hits the fan, he would have a mandate of his own and not one inherited from Muscat.

In contrast, Bernar Grech never managed to entirely quell conflicts which came to the fore in a Facebook spat between former ldear Adrian Delia and Jason Azzopardi, and once again in September when Delia supporters attended Independence celebrations as a ‘team’ wearing dark blue shirts.

Grech’s hold on the party remained tenuous as confirmed by his inability to steer his party in a more liberal direction on cannabis reform, with a premature declaration taking credit for a crucial aspect of the reform returning to haunt him after the parliamentary group decided to oppose ‘the normalisation’ of drug use.

And while the lively debate in the PN contrasts with the devotion to Labour’s ‘dear leader’, Grech has failed in striking a balance between internal democracy and showcasing himself as a decisive leader.

2. Grech suffers heavily at any sign of weakness. Abela gets away with much more, remaining as popular as ever despite the FATF greylisting

Abela has survived major storms which should have shaken his hold on the electorate. But the only crisis to hurt him in the polls was an upsurge in COVID cases in the first months of 2021.

In contrast he was spared any political fallout from the FATF decision to greylist Malta, which although officially attributed to structural problems like tax evasion was also the consequence of the spotlight put on Malta by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the climate of impunity fostered by Muscat after the Panama Papers.

So far Abela has also managed to emerge unscathed from cases of impropriety involving Labour politicians like Rosianne Cutajar, who was demoted from junior minister but retained on Labour’s ticket despite accepting a €9,000 gift from 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech; and Justyne Caruana who has been reprimanded by the Standards Commissioner for a direct order for her intimate friend Daniel Bogdanovic.

One reason for Abela’s Teflon quality is the distance he has set between himself and his predecessor. Even timid steps against abuse taken under Abela appear gargantuan in contrast to impunity under Muscat.

In contrast the electorate has been more sensitive to any misstep by Grech, partly because the PN has set higher standards for itself in the past years. So while Labour’s proximity to big business is taken for granted to the extent that the public is surprised when a big project is not approved by the Planning Authority, any hint of duplicity by the PN is met by social media outcries.

3. Incapable or unwilling to purge his party of Muscat loyalists, Abela is co-opting a team more representative of his way of thinking. Grech is trying to do the same, with less success

Abela has been reluctant to purge the party from people who actively defended Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi. He is even hesitant to act even in clear-cut cases of impropriety like that involving Justyne Caruana. And people like Jason Micallef, Karl Stagno Navarra and Robert Musumeci still dominate the party’s presence on both TV and the social media.

But crucially through the past months Abela managed to consolidate his hold in parliament by co-opting a new crop of MPs who are less associated with the Muscat era. These include Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli and backbenchers Oliver Scicluna and Jonathan Attard.

Caruana has proved an invaluable asset not just because of his competence but also because of his unpretentious demeanour and technocratic outlook. This has infused the party with new blood and confirmed the party’s ability to regenerate itself but has raised questions of democratic legitimacy.

And like Gonzi before him Abela has suggested that he would like constitutional powers to appoint unelected technocrats, which would further strengthen the PM’s powers.

Grech has also managed to appoint Michael Piccinino as the party’s new young general secretary replacing veteran Francis Zammit Dimech. He has also gambled on Chris Peregin whom he hired as party strategist at the risk of irking the conservative base of the party, which shuns alien imports who may upset the political ecology of the party.

Grech still needs an election to push through a generational change in his parliamentary group but he may not even benefit from it if he fails to make any inroads and is removed after the next election.

4. Abela enjoys toying with the Opposition by keeping it guessing on the election date, and while it was Grech’s PN which started the rumuor, Abela was infantile in playing the game right up to the end

Since August the PN did everything in its power to push the idea that an early election was on the horizon in what may well have been an attempt at galvanising 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”. He only excluded an election a week later, faced by the angry reaction of retailers who feared that an election would deal another blow to the shopping season right before Christmas.

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.

And while Abela may certainly not be blamed for a rumour spun by the Opposition in its own newspaper in summer by prolonging uncertainty in his own budget speech, Abela was actively contributing to uncertainty.

5. On COVID, Abela changed tack after polls punished him for his over-optimistic and unnecessary statements. Grech was consistently cautious

It was COVID which posed the most serious threat to Robert Abela’s hold on the electorate. In the first months of 2021, a spike in cases led to another soft lockdown despite Abela’s earlier promise of a fast return to normality, based on vaccine optimism, which was overtaken by the Delta variant.

Yet Abela also showed a remarkable ability to change tack, by adopting greater caution in the following months. And despite these hiccups, Abela capitalised on a successful vaccine roll-out, continued support for workers and industries exposed to the crisis, and on public yearning for strong leadership during a national crisis.

COVID also offered the national government a break from EU spending rules and new funding for the green conversion of the economy. But a resurgence of the pandemic triggered by new vaccine resistant variants like Omicron could well undermine Abela’s future ability to contain the economic and social havoc which may be unleashed by another wave.

Still, while Abela was fairly blamed for irresponsible and over-optimistic declarations after the first lockdown, he can’t be blamed for the emergence of new variants, and people may be even likelier to trust a strong leader in challenging times. Moreover, while the increase in public spending during COVID was more than justified, with an election approaching Labour may be tempted to use this flexibility to its advantage.

On the other hand Bernard Grech’s prudence before and during the second lockdown did resonate with public anxieties, but COVID became less of any issue after Abela himself heeded expert advice and adopted caution as his own flagship, even by erring on the side of caution.

Moreover the PN’s Budget response was underlined by a fiscal conservatism which contrasts with the country’s expectations and which is currently out of fashion across Europe, where Keynesian economics is back in vogue.

6. Abela still shies away from debating Grech

Since being elected PL leader Abela has avoided any debate with the new Opposition leader Bernard Grech. Abela had constantly denied Grech a shared platform, which he desperately needs to build up his public persona and gravitas as an alternative prime minister. By the time Abela would face Grech in face-to-face electoral debates, most voters would have already made up their minds. Moreover, Abela has also not given full blown interviews with the independent media, avoiding uncomfortable questions on his relationship with his predecessor. As things stand it is the Opposition which needs to keep up the heat on government in its, so-far elusive gamble, to cut Labour’s insurmountable lead in the polls. A de-escalation of political heat benefits the party in government, which only needs to consolidate its lead in the surveys without taking unnecessary risks.

7. Neither Abela nor Grech come across as men of great convictions with any grand plan to save democracy from the corrupting influence of big business, or the environment from bad policies of the last decade

Neither Abela nor Grech come across as visionaries with a bold plan to build a second republic as Muscat projected himself in 2013. None have come up with proposals aimed at setting a firewall between politicians and big business by introducing party financing and clamping down on private donations. Both dismiss calls to change local plans and planning policies on the absurd premise that development rights cannot be taken away. And both are reluctant to commit themselves to raise the minimum wage, with the PN vaguely committing itself to introducing a living wage without giving any details.

In this way both leaders seem to lack the qualities expected of transformative leaders and are more focused on balancing acts which keep as many different contradictory interests on board. But while Abela is constrained by the realities of actually governing the country, one would expect Grech to be less hinged and bolder in articulating a vision of a fairer Malta.

Instead Grech is hinged by the contradictions in his own party which prevent him from focusing on giving the wider electorate a compelling reason for believing in the change he promises. And while Grech still weighs his every word, not to upset categories of voters like hunters or building contractors, at the risk of sounding bland, Abela keeps hitting the jackpot by selectively delivering on promises like cannabis reform which on balance are vote-winners among strategic minorities, or postponing contentious decisions like a proposed marina in Marsaskala and land reclamation to after the election.

And having led the country from a political crisis through a pandemic to an electoral campaign, it remains hard to decipher how Abela would govern in normal times, if that will ever be the case.