[ANALYSIS] Muscat’s exit strategy takes politics into uncharted territory

Joseph Muscat’s surprise declaration that he will not be contesting the next election as Labour leader could open a Pandora’s box for his party

Hello, goodbye: Muscat has said he will not contest another general election, which could mean that Muscat hands over his party to a new leader before 2022 and in much more favourable circumstances, allowing him to still serve his full term as prime minister while Labour chooses its next leader
Hello, goodbye: Muscat has said he will not contest another general election, which could mean that Muscat hands over his party to a new leader before 2022 and in much more favourable circumstances, allowing him to still serve his full term as prime minister while Labour chooses its next leader

Joseph Muscat’s surprise declaration that he will not be contesting the next election as Labour leader could open a Pandora’s box for his party.

Elected by a massive 36,000 majority for his second term, his immediate declaration that his party must choose a new leader before the next general election kick-starts a race that could also create tension inside his own ranks at a time when his leadership is stronger than ever.

Muscat had already declared he would serve just two terms as Prime Minister, which seals his position in history as the sole politician to win two consecutive elections with the largest majorities ever.

That alone however does not exclude him from leading Labour in a third election run as Eddie Fenech Adami had done in 2003 right after securing the EU membership referendum, to resign a year later, and pave the way for a leadership contest which saw Lawrence Gonzi defeating contenders Louis Galea and John Dalli. 

But neither is Muscat following in the steps of ideological mentor Tony Blair, who after winning the 2005 election, vacated the premiership two years later to honour his pact with Gordon Brown to succeed him.

Chris Fearne, the popular health minister, could be mulling the deputy leadership of the party, a position that would put him in place to be deputy prime minister
Chris Fearne, the popular health minister, could be mulling the deputy leadership of the party, a position that would put him in place to be deputy prime minister

This would have allowed Muscat to use his popularity to take his party into a third administration.

But now he risks creating a leadership vacuum before a possible 2022 election.

He could use the next two years to groom his successor, having a major say in determining who takes over after him. This could open him up to criticism of putting his own historical record before the party’s interest. And if Muscat is not tainted by the ongoing magisterial inquiries, it is clear it would be easier for Labour to win the next election with him at the helm, than with someone else who will still need time to grow in their role.

Malta’s only precedent for a leadership change in a party-in-government is 1984, when Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici replaced Dom Mintoff as both Prime Minister and party leader. It’s a precedent that does not bode well for Labour: KMB was overshadowed by Mintoff.

What changes now is that the next Labour leader must be elected through a popular vote of all paid-up members, after statute changes approved in 2008. That grants any new leader more legitimacy than KMB had in the 1980s.

In 1984, Dom Mintoff (right) handed the leadership to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici (left) while in government: he overshadowed the premiership right to the end
In 1984, Dom Mintoff (right) handed the leadership to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici (left) while in government: he overshadowed the premiership right to the end

There is a major difference here. Mintoff was uncomfortable with Labour’s 1981 victory, which secured power through a majority of seats but not of votes, as was constitutionally correct at the time.

In contrast Muscat has been re-elected with a second, consecutive super-majority that has left the Nationalists in a shambles. Unlike 1984, Muscat hands over his party to a new leader in much more favourable circumstances, and he could still serve his full term as prime minister while Labour chooses its next leader.

There is one major advantage to this move. The election of a new Labour leader will take place after that of a PN leader this year. This essentially deprives the PN of the chance of identifying the best candidate to contrast the next Labour leader who now remains an unknown.

The PN may even end up facing two adversaries, with the incumbent Muscat who will campaign for his designated successor. 

What is sure is that the 2017 election result itself does not indicate a possible replacement for Muscat. People like Owen Bonnici and former MP Edward Zammit Lewis have been weakened by their vote performance, while people with no leadership aspirations like Edward Scicluna have performed strongly.

Eddie Fenech Adami resigned in 2004 after securing the EU membership referendum, paving the way for a leadership contest which saw Lawrence Gonzi (left) defeating contenders Louis Galea and John Dalli
Eddie Fenech Adami resigned in 2004 after securing the EU membership referendum, paving the way for a leadership contest which saw Lawrence Gonzi (left) defeating contenders Louis Galea and John Dalli

Possible contenders who have done well are new MP Robert Abela – who carries his father’s dynastic legacy – health minister Chris Fearne, who led the fourth district, and young Ian Borg, who at 31 has been elevated to head a super-ministry responsible for transport, infrastructure and planning. It is a mega-budget ministry that may well be a poisoned chalice for Borg, who now takes charge of the planning regulator while also being responsible for a €700 million road construction effort.

The fact is Labour is now so married to Muscat’s presidentialism that it is hard to imagine a new leader building an autonomous base before the next election. They may well be overshadowed by Muscat’s towering presence.

And it is yet unknown how the incognita presented by the Egrant and Keith Schembri magisterial inquiries, will affect Muscat. Indeed it is hard to exclude the possibility that Muscat’s decision to call it a day before the next election has been conditioned by these inquiries.

Perhaps the other unknown is if Muscat could change his mind by the next election. Is he just creating confusion for the Opposition, making them choose their next leader in the dark?

Muscat had previously committed himself to a 2018 election before Egrant cropped up: he was quick to change his mind and call a snap poll, and new circumstances may yet force a change of mind again.

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