After his honeymoon, Muscat faces a difficult mid-term

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has so far defied the law of diminishing returns, retaining a substantial poll advantage over opposition leader Simon Busuttil.  But will Malliagate signify the beginning of a steady decline in trust or will Muscat draw the lessons from this episode to recover the moral high ground he may have lost?

His 35,000-vote margin at the European elections meant Joseph Muscat managed to extend his honeymoon by a few more months. With various opinion polls suggesting he retains a substantial advantage over Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, his government’s popularity is even confirmed by the European Commission’s  Eurobarometer survey – all suggesting that Muscat has not only managed to consolidate his hold on Maltese society by retaining Labour’s 2013 majority but is still making further inroads into the PN’s traditional electorate.   

It suggests that in government Labour has not only kept social  liberals on board through the introduction of civil unions and the proposed liberalisation of drug laws but may have made further inroads in sectors which normally backed the PN, such as the business community and the construction industry.  

Now it may be benefiting from being perceived as the natural party of government and the dispenser of patronage – a factor which benefited PN governments between 1987 and 2008. Their perceived invincibility, perpetuated by opinion polls, now brings on board former Nationalists who would rather join them. Because they can’t beat them.

Yet contradictions in Labour's electoral block are already emerging especially with regards to the widespread perception that an "anything goes" culture has taken root and in some cases- especially with regards to planning decisions- is even being rewarded.


Beneath the veneer of popularity

Muscat’s reluctance to sack Manuel Mallia may well not have resulted in any substantial loss in popularity but certainly lost him the  moral high ground he enjoyed in the past two years. Favourable surveys could easily fool Labour into self-congratulation and fail to address underlying ailments.

Beneath the veneer of high ratings, public reactions to the shootout involving Mallia’s driver indicate the first unequivocal signs of dissatisfaction. A MaltaToday poll suggested that only a relative majority of 39% wanted Mallia to resign. But the same poll suggested that an overwhelming majority of university educated respondents (65%), and switchers (53%) wanted Mallia to go at a time when Muscat was still defending the disgraced minister.  

For some the sense of omnipotence felt by Mallia’s driver was symptomatic of an “anything goes culture” which sees members of the new elite not only occupying all the public boards under the sun, but also tweaking regulations and policies in spheres, like land-use planning, for their own private ends.

These signs may not be reflected in opinion polls for two main reasons. One reason is that the electorate has yet to perceive the Opposition and its leader as a viable or credible alternative to a system which predates Muscat’s ascent to power. 

Another is that switchers who have invested their trust in Muscat in the last general election may still be giving the PM the benefit of the doubt. It’s this personal trust factor that may make Muscat immune to the mishaps of his increasingly sloppy ministers.   

Just as in pre-modern monarchies, the third estate is more likely to blame the nobility or the ministers while absolving the king of complicity in their misdeeds. And it is this that raises the prospect of the new Labour government as a sort of benevolent but self-perpetuating regime – a more popular and powerful version of the much-maligned GonziPN. 

This comes with a risk because Muscat may get all the blame when people start feeling that their trust has been betrayed, an inevitable process but which may take a very long time to develop. But this moment of rapture remains an elusive one for an opposition which has been expecting Muscat’s mask to fall for the past year but has always ended up with egg on its face.

Muscat’s long honeymoon

Sure enough, boosted by a nine-seat majority Muscat has enjoyed one of the longest honeymoons in recent Maltese political history. It is reminiscent of the consensus created around Nationalist Party policies between 1987 and 1992, where Eddie Fenech Adami – with only a wafer-thin one-seat majority – enjoyed widespread support to liberalise the Maltese economy while retaining Mintoff’s welfare state.

The same may apply to Muscat’s ability to combine neoliberal economics (like the sale of passports and the privatisation of energy) with secularism and new universal welfare benefits like free childcare.

With a strong economy that reassures the electorate, Muscat’s other chief merit is his respect for public opinion, which gives him humility when compared to the stubborn Gonzi, even if this attitude may reflect Muscat’s obsession with retaining popularity at all costs.  And yet, not only has he managed to weather several storms but he also managed to connect with public opinion even in cases where he was initially caught on the wrong foot by the opposition.  

His greatest asset is his flexibility, his ability to withdraw and change tack whenever cornered: scrapping the secrecy clause of the Individual Investors Programme or abandoning plans to postpone the local elections to 2019 in what was interpreted as a cunning move to decrease turnout in the hunting referendum.  Still the very fact that Muscat had the audacity to consider such dubious steps is in itself an ominous sign. For backtacking from the indefensible is not exactly a merit.

Still it was only in his reluctance to sack Mallia did he appear weak. For although ultimately he did capitulate to public opinion, Muscat did so half-heartedly. Whether Muscat will learn from this mistake to be able to hold his ground in the next year, may well prove to be the most difficult for him due to a number of appointments and deadlines.

Muscat’s mid-tem year will be a hard one: here governments are expected to take unpopular decisions that cannot be postponed to the eve of the next election and are bound to generate controversy. For the first time, Muscat will take decisions that will alienate a segment of the population.  

Public transport

Any deterioration of the service under new Spanish bus operator Autobuses de Leon will be squarely blamed on Muscat’s government, after having lambasted and ditreched the Arriva service and increasing subsidies to €23 million.

While the low level of subsidy given to Arriva was the reason for its failure, by increasing subsidies Muscat has increased public expectations for good service. Any sign of deterioration will be seen as a betrayal of their trust.

Muscat may bank on the fact that Labour voters, likely to prevail among users of public transport due to social class factors, may be more tolerant towards mediocrity under a Labour government than under a PN government. This has been the case so far, following the deterioration in the service during the past months. 

On the other hand, an improved service will mean Muscat’s government can take credit for succeeding on a matter where all past governments have failed: giving the country the public transport system it deserves.

Immigration and the redneck vote

Muscat’s government is expected to enact an integration policy for migrants and to reform the detention regime, two measures which are in marked contrast to the aborted pushback policy he championed in his first year of office.

But Muscat will have to come to terms with that part of the electorate that applauded his pushback threats. In the absence of an improvement of living conditions any upsurge in migration flows resulting from the replacement of Mare Nostrum by a downscaled EU operation, this segment of the population could become increasingly restless and more assertive in supporting pushbacks.

On immigration Muscat’s trade-off is between legitimacy among a minority of influential liberal and left-wing voters, and his populist appeal.

The working class connection

Muscat will increasingly be expected to deliver in improving living standards of Maltese workers.

While the last Budget included significant child benefits for those on minimum wage, the Budget left other categories of workers out in the cold and one of the lowest COLA increase in recent history.

Labour’s doublespeak on recipients of social benefits also expose further contradictions. Voters who regard single mothers as professional bums as suggested by the finance minister may be less willing to support Labour’s welfare policies. And while Labour clamps down on precarious working conditions in the public sector, so far it has refrained from seeking better conditions in the private sector. In fact the number of workers relying on a part time job as their main job has continued to increase and has now reached the 15% mark.

Reclaiming the moral high-ground

Muscat may reclaim some of the moral high ground he lost during the Mallia saga, by taking the initiative on democratic reforms and enacting constitutional checks and balances, which strengthen parliament.

This may be achieved by convening the constitutional convention and embark on public consultation on these reforms.

Muscat may also finally acknowledge that a reform of MP salaries is preferable to supplementing their incomes through public appointments, which undermine their autonomy and independence. He may even seek to mend fences with the office of the Ombudsman after Manuel Mallia mishandled a disagreement on an investigation on army promotions.  

One major test for Muscat would be that of presenting parliament with the full agreements with IIP agents Henley and Partners, Electrogas Ltd and Shanghai Electric.  Hiding behind commercial sensitivity will bring back memories of the worst aspects of the previous administration. 

Muscat may choose to change the system of appointments by increasing parliamentary scrutiny and grilling of political appointees. He may well translate the trust invested in him by the electorate in reforms, which increase scrutiny and accountability. Still constitutional reform may be a double-edged sword.  

Muscat could use these reforms to enact a more presidential republic where the Prime Minister is vested with new powers, including that of appointing unelected technocrats as ministers. This may ultimately result in strengthening Castille at the expense of political parties and parliament.

Another major issue is whether the PM will seek consensus with the Opposition in devising the common rules of our democracy or whether he would seek to circumvent it through a consultative referendum held before a binding parliamentary vote instead of holding a  referendum to ratify the consensus already reached in parliament.

One thing for sure is that 2015 is the last chance to commence a process of constitutional change which must be concluded by the end of 2016 before the next electoral campaign sets in.

Former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia
Former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia

Re-appointing Mallia?

One major challenge will be whether to give Mallia another public role or not.

Muscat has already expressed his willingness to reappoint Mallia in another role but this would immediately re-open a can of worms, which the PM may prefer to keep closed.

Muscat may well prefer not to re-open the Mallia chapter before the next election.

One opportunity for Muscat may be the expiry of Louis Galea’s term as Malta’s representative in the European Court of Auditors to give Mallia the kick upstairs – but Mallia may much more prefer taking the place of another minister appointed to this European post. 

Reappointing Mallia will fuel speculation on the power he holds over Muscat; but it could be the price to pay to avoid the prospect of the former minister becoming a thorn in Muscat’s side.

A neverending saga of protests led by Lino Farrugia, today styled as the ‘CEO’ of the FKNK
A neverending saga of protests led by Lino Farrugia, today styled as the ‘CEO’ of the FKNK

The spring hunting referendum

If it gets the green light from the Constitutional Court on 9 January, it will be hard for the PM to abstain from a debate on this issue. He will have to weigh the support the hunting lobby gave him in 2013 and 2014, against the cost of alienating middle of the road voters who resent the blackmail of the hunting lobby.

Hunting is one of those few issues where the contradictions in Muscat’s hegemonic block come to the fore. Here the PM balances his bias in favour of the hunting and trapping community by increasing fines and penalties against hunting irregularities. Undoubtedly, his decision to suspend the last autumn season following a spate of illegalities was clearly conditioned by the inevitability of the referendum.

Indeed, he could actually help the hunting lobby by adopting iron fist at the first sign of illegality during the spring hunting season preceding the referendum. In this way he would send the message that hunting may be retained in spring without the rampant abuse, which characterised it in the past.

This time around, the hunting lobby may play to Muscat’s tune in an extreme bid to convince the electorate they are law-abiding members of the community – unless voters show scepticism at a show of force a few weeks before a referendum.

It is unlikely that Muscat would invest his energy in a lost cause. He may well seek to compensate the hunting community for the loss of spring hunting by defying the European Commission on trapping and through further concessions for hunters like the proposed amnesty for owners of stuffed birds.

The abolition of spring hunting may also embolden environmentalists and civil society in the face of the government’s pandering to minority interest groups.

But a defeated referendum would signify a mortal blow to civil society activism and pave the way for a backlash and roll-back of environmental regulations.    

The local elections test

On the same day of the referendum Muscat faces a round of local elections he had initially wanted to postpone to 2019, hoping to avoid any electoral test before the 2018 election. Retaining his 55% majority in what probably could be his most difficult year is going to be a challenge. Any signs of a recovery by the Opposition may dent the perception that Muscat cannot be beaten. Muscat could be bold in transforming the local contest into one with a national significance in a bid to vanquish the PN, or simply emphasise the local nature of the vote in a bid to minimise the significance of any opposition gains.

The energy saga

Muscat has already postponed the deadline for the LNG plant frmo March 2015 deadline to June 2016. Any further delay may seriously dent the people’s trust in his government. So far, the government has been opaque in explaining how the delay will have no bearing on the public coffers.

But Labour will still honour its pledge to reduce bills for businesses, which on its own may stimulate the Maltese economy in the coming months. Any such boost in economic growth – coupled with revenue from the IIP scheme – may well buy Muscat more time in his bid to avoid spending cuts or increases in taxation.  

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil

Delegitimising the Opposition

2015 will make it difficult to Muscat to re-exhume past scandals every time he is in difficulty. He will be expected to act like a Prime Minister and take responsibility for his decisions. Even though Muscat wins the popularity contest against Simon Busuttil hands down, the latter’s stature has grown during the past months, especially in his Budget speech in the aftermath of Malliagate – this may not yet be reflected in the polls but may have given renewed confidence to core PN voters.

And instilling confidence among core PN voters is the necessary first step for any vanquished opposition. So Muscat will face a Busuttil who has grown in stature and may well be a harder nut to crack than anticipated.

Busuttil remains vulnerable as he represents continuity with a scandal-ridden PN administration. Muscat can unleash all his ammunition on Busuttil to thwart any PN recovery but the electorate may well see this as a sign of panic and an attempt to delegitimise the opposition.

timately while weakening the opposition, Muscat may end up conjuring the spectre of “anti-politics” – that growing aversion with conventional politics which is contributing to the rise of populist right wing politicians in other EU member states.