Muscat’s leverage: spectre of a comeback that haunts Abela

The promise of ‘noise’ from a Joseph Muscat placed under the lens of a magisterial inquiry could upset Robert Abela’s delicate balancing act to appease the ex-leader’s loyalists, and Labour voters uneasy with that legacy. But it’s election time, and Abela wants an even larger majority: is Muscat going to upset that, or achieve it for his successor?

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s announcement on Facebook that he could return to public life through a revamped digital presence or ‘face to face’ meetings with sympathisers, has sent shockwaves in the Labour Party.

Muscat’s Facebook video, which he published after a police search that confiscated his and his family’s mobile phones as part of an anti-corruption investigation, has been interpreted as a move aimed at conditioning Prime Minister Robert Abela not to sideline the former party leader.

Internally, Muscat remains a force to be reckoned with and the former PM knows he can rally the party’s grassroots and upset Abela’s balancing act, who wants institutions to probe corruption cases that cast a dark shadow on his predecessor’s legacy.

Muscat’s veiled threat, made in the wake of an early morning police raid related to a corruption probe into the Vitals privatization case, inevitably stirred a hornet’s nest inside Labour. The raid triggered support for Muscat from its social media doyens, like One TV chairman Jason Micallef, who called on Labourites to rally behind the former leader whom he described as “one of us”; old time propagandist Emmanuel Cuschieri eulogised the former leader and expressed his readiness to take action in his defence.

This kind of allusion to some sort of political comeback is particularly significant for the coming weeks, before an imminent general election in which Robert Abela is keen on gaining a strong mandate of his own. That will come either by retaining or even increasing Labour’s super-majority – an unprecedented size in 2013, and doubly so when Muscat repeated this act in 2017 despite widespread corruption allegations.

If Abela matches his predecessor’s record, it could consolidate his leadership by eclipsing Muscat’s historic landslide victories.

But Abela owes part of his support in Labour’s internal contest in 2020 to the support of the Muscats; still, even after his election, he surprised many when his vaunted ‘continuity’ motto appeared to be placed to the wayside with his gestures towards good governance, police investigations on corruption claims, and overtures to voters who see Muscat’s legacy as toxic.

Muscat’s enduring popularity in Labour

This ambivalence towards Muscat is grounded in surveys that show that while Muscat remains popular in the Labour, he has lost his charm among the wider electorate. A survey by Illum in September showed that overall, just over 30% of the Maltese electorate agree with Muscat’s return to politics – 61% were current Labour voters.

But the police raid in which the mobile phones of Muscat’s children were also confiscated, was bound to trigger the anger of a segment of Labour voters who revere Muscat. And it is this that makes it harder for Abela to keep his distance from Muscat without denouncing him.

Why Muscat wants the stage

Muscat’s future public interventions are not expected in any way to directly harm Abela’s electoral prospects. Indeed, it could take the form of unsolicited public support for Labour in the next election. But any return to public life will also have a polarising effect that would make it impossible for Abela to distance himself from his predecessor.

Party insiders say Abela is not keen on upsetting the apple cart months before the next election. He counts on the support of both Muscat loyalists and those who think Labour is a better alternative to the PN, but shun Muscat’s legacy, particularly on the hospital deal.

They also fear that the Vitals scandal may well be Labour’s Achilles heel and a veritable time bomb in the coming election. Although Labour’s lead remains unassailable, even immune to damage from corruption revelations, any direct implication of Muscat in corruption would backfire on Abela. The PM would dread the prospect of a vocal, albeit supportive Muscat, preferring him to extend his sabbatical until after the election.

But Muscat knows his leverage with Abela is with his own loyalists. Muscat could have plausibly not broken any law, but he knows magistrates probing into corruption scandals from his time in office, are bound to question him – so political visibility is his best defence against their prying eyes and possible prosecution.

And what happens if he tries to put his own stamp on the seal of Abela’s next victory? Could he insure himself further by taking credit for galvanizing the Labour vote?

Abela does not want the next election to be about Muscat’s legacy but his own. After months in which he failed to send out any message of discontinuity with the Muscat era, Abela is now under pressure to defend the former leader. If push comes to shove, he may well have to give Muscat his pound of flesh.

Abela sticks to his balancing act

In his first reaction to Muscat’s declaration, Abela tried to strike a balance by reiterating his “full trust” in the institutions while saying that he could not understand why the mobile phones of Muscat’s daughters were seized, appearing sympathetic to his predecessor without undermining the judiciary – albeit with a significant reminder that “institutions must safeguard the trust placed in them”.

The police raid which left Muscat “half-surprised” and forthcoming with a file full of documents prepared for the police, gave Muscat an opportunity to appeal to grassroots sympathies against what he called “theatrics” meant to “humiliate” him. Although he did not clearly blame anyone for orchestrating the raid.

Significantly, Muscat had demoted his deputy leader Anglu Farrugia on the eve of the 2013 election for criticising a magistrate; and indeed he refrained from directly attacking the judiciary for authorising the police raid. But he found a convenient punching bag in Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi who on Sunday hinted that the public will “soon know” the real reason why Abela was reluctant on approving a law for a special inquiring magistrate who does not rely on police to conduct corruption investigations.

By engaging in useless chatter, Azzopardi offered Muscat an opportunity to hint at collusion between the PN and investigators with the intent of humiliating him.

PN leader Bernard Grech also tried to stir trouble in Labour by hinting that Abela wanted to humiliate Muscat. But such a declaration strengthens Muscat’s position, by piling pressure on Abela to come to the former leader’s defence.