Goodbye Qormi, hello Zurrieq! Abela’s fifth district candidature ruffles feathers

Robert Abela’s choice to run on the fifth district will cannibalise a Labour vote previously up for grabs by four Cabinet members

Left to right: Miriam Dalli, Julia Farrugia-Portelli, Owen Bonnici and Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi
Left to right: Miriam Dalli, Julia Farrugia-Portelli, Owen Bonnici and Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi

Joseph Muscat’s decision to contest the 5th District in the 2017 general election was intended to placate Labour discontent after the departure of strong local MPs.

Muscat had nominated then tourism minister Karmenu Vella for European Commissioner three years earlier, a move that saw the much-loved Labour veteran leave his Żurrieq constituency for Brussels.

At the same time, popular dentist Marlene Farrugia, who was elected on a Labour ticket in 2013 from the district, had eloped to form Partit Demokratiku. In 2017, PD’s candidates ran under the PN banner and Farrugia contested again on the 5th District, but this time her name appeared on the blue list.

Lawyer Joseph M. Sammut, elected on a Labour ticket in 2013, did not contest the 2017 election.

With the 5th district losing three of its local MPs, the Labour Party had a massive gap in its 2017 candidacy, which Muscat moved in to fill.

In that election, the PL lost the fourth seat it had won in 2013 but still managed to capture almost 66% of first-count votes.

A well-served district

Roll forward five years and in the next election, the PL will field none other than four Cabinet members on the district – Equality Minister Owen Bonnici, Inclusion Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli and parliamentary secretary Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.

Bonnici has over the past couple of years been living in Żurrieq and Farrugia Portelli has her family roots in Qrendi.

Dalli, who left her European Parliament seat to join Robert Abela’s Cabinet in 2020, does not only have family roots in Safi but is also married to Karmenu Vella’s son. She was expected to do very well on the district as ‘heiress’ to Vella’s constituency.

With Labour well-served on the district, there seemed to be no strategic reason this time around for the party leader to put his name on the ballot sheet.

Ruffling Miriam’s feathers

And yet, that is what Abela did last week when he announced his candidature on the 5th District.

Sources close to the PL have told MaltaToday that the surprise move angered Miriam Dalli, who was hoping for a strong showing. Some also suggested that Abela may have broken his promise to her that he would not be contesting the 5th District.

There is no doubt that Dalli will get elected but Abela’s candidature will dampen her first count result.

Abela announced his candidature in Mqabba’s main square last Sunday and unsurprisingly, the only minister he mentioned by name throughout his speech was Miriam Dalli, praising her for the handling of the energy sector.

A few days later, Abela and Dalli appeared together at Enemed’s Ħas-Saptan oil depot inaugurating new storage facilities.

Undoubtedly, Abela appeared as if he wanted to defuse the situation by giving Dalli credit and appearing alongside her.

Goodbye Qormi

But the question remains as to why the Prime Minister decided to choose the 5th District for his second candidature.

Like his predecessor, Abela is contesting the 2nd District, home to his wife’s family and a traditional Labour stronghold. But whereas everyone was expecting him to contest the 6th District, which includes his birthplace Qormi, Abela decided otherwise.

When announcing his decision, Abela made it a point to ask for forgiveness from Qormi residents. He was elected to parliament for the first time in 2017 from the 6th District, coming in a strong second after Silvio Schembri.

Fourth seat and a head-on clash

Abela’s candidature may be an attempt by the PL to recapture the fourth seat on the district. In 2017, the PL was only 186 votes away on the last count to elect its fourth MP, a difference that was not insurmountable, especially with Dalli’s candidature.

But Abela may have also wanted a head-on battle with Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech, who will be contesting the 5th District apart from the 11th.

Grech hails from Birżebbuġa and his candidature could be one way of shoring up support for his party in the south, where the PN has seen its numbers dwindle over the years. The PN leader may have wanted to bridge the disconnect that had been growing between the electorate in the south and the party’s structures, often viewed as elitist.

Grech’s candidature could also be intended to ensure the PN retains the second seat it won on the district in 2017.

Within this context, Abela could not resist the temptation for a one-on-one battle with Grech, even if the Prime Minister is playing home.

Whatever the reason, Abela’s surprise choice has confirmed his unpredictable nature, a character trait that has kept his ministers and MPs on tenterhooks for the past two years.

Present contenders for the fifth district (Birzebbugia, Kirkop, Mqabba, Zurrieq, Hal-Farrug (Luqa) Qrendi, Safi, Bubaqra)

Miriam Dalli: the former Labour MEP gave up her seat in Brussels for a technocratic appointment as energy minister. Her first stab at the general elections in her ‘home’ constituency will be dampened by the presence of Robert Abela as PM.

Julia Farrugia-Portelli first stood for election for Labour in 2017 - Qrendi is her hometown. She received 394 first-count votes and 2,000 votes from Muscat’s first preference votes, and eventually reached her quota at the 24th count.

Minister for equality Owen Bonnici contests both the 5th and the 3rd districts: in 2017, he got 278 first count votes in the fifth district, then inherited 2,090 from Joseph Muscat’s first preference votes. He was eventually elected on the 23rd count of the votes.

Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, today a parliamentary secretary, failed to get elected but received 459 first-count votes and then 1,883 votes from Muscat. He was 300 votes shy of the quota by the end of counting, and was elected after Muscat ceded his fifth district seat.

Elected PL candidates in 2017

  • Joseph Muscat 12,886 (1st count)
  • Owen Bonnici 4,396 (Count 23)
  • Julia Farrugia-Portelli 3,903 (Count 24)
  • Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi 3,509 (elected after Muscat ceded double constituency seat)