Looking back at 2017 | Seesaws and baptisms, the year of Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia

Christmas Specials • As 2017 comes to a close Kurt Sansone looks at the fortunes of the two men shaping Malta’s political destiny

In 2017 Muscat appears to have ridden the waves that came his way but the Egrant inquiry is like the sword of Damocles hanging over his career
In 2017 Muscat appears to have ridden the waves that came his way but the Egrant inquiry is like the sword of Damocles hanging over his career

Joseph Muscat’s seesaw year

It was the year Joseph Muscat secured a second successive electoral victory but getting there was not as straightforward as he would have liked it.

Preparations within the Labour Party had been underway since the beginning of the year for a possible early election.

Buoyed by positive trust ratings and a feel-good factor, the Prime Minister wanted to have all options open to hold an election anytime in the 12 months leading to March 2018.

When the db Group scandal rocked the Nationalist Party in March, many within the PL believed the moment to go to the polls had arrived.

With the Opposition party having to fend off accusations it received private finance to cover the salaries of top officials under the guise of false invoices, many felt its good governance platform was dented.

The circumstances meant that a comfortable election victory was possible for Muscat but the plan almost went haywire when the Egrant allegations came to the fore in April.

From the high spot on the seesaw, Muscat suddenly found himself heading downwards.

But in a game of brinkmanship he went on the attack, asking for a magisterial inquiry into the allegations targeting his wife and pinning his political career to the outcome. The move worked. He halted the downward trajectory of the seesaw. People were more willing to trust him over his rival Simon Busuttil and in a climate of general wellbeing the electorate felt it should not change a winning horse.

After a terse and sour electoral campaign, Muscat seesawed back up with an electoral victory of historic proportions that disoriented the Nationalist Party.

The election aftermath that saw the PN riven by internal rivalry saw Muscat maintain the high until October’s murder of journalist and long-time critic Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The murder shocked the country and led to several protests as the rule of law in Malta came under intense international scrutiny.

Again, Muscat acted fast: he called in foreign police agencies to help in the murder investigation and lifted the lid on any spending limits to “leave no stone unturned”.

Despite the flak from the European Parliament, the Civil Society Network and the Opposition, Muscat’s seesaw did not buckle. He may have had his ambitions for a top EU post dented by the ugly incident but in the eyes of the Maltese public, his handling of the murder was generally perceived to be good.

His trust rating in November, as measured in a MaltaToday survey, stood at an all-time high since becoming Prime Minister in 2013. But more important, the survey also found that people generally did not agree with statements that Malta had become a mafia state and the country was experiencing a climate of fear.

The narrative put forward by a noisy minority failed to gain enough traction to unsettle Muscat’s seesaw. The arraignment of three suspects connected to Caruana Galizia’s murder, less than two months after it happened, will make it harder for the seesaw to buckle.

Even if the people who commissioned the murder have not yet been identified, the fact that three men were charged in court represents a major step forward, especially for those who remember the brutal killings of Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana that were never solved.

In 2017 Muscat appears to have ridden the waves that came his way. But even if his persona does not emerge
completely unscathed, and the unfinished Egrant inquiry remains like the sword of Damocles hanging over his career, for the time being Muscat ends a seesaw year on top.

 

Adrian Delia’s baptism of fire

As Delia finds his feet, many more pitfalls lie ahead and the PN leader will have to chart out a political course for a party that appears to have lost its identity after Malta joined the EU
As Delia finds his feet, many more pitfalls lie ahead and the PN leader will have to chart out a political course for a party that appears to have lost its identity after Malta joined the EU

Adrian Delia came from nowhere to take the Nationalist Party, and to a lesser extent, the country by storm.

So unsettling was his election as PN leader to many within the party structures that Delia faced, and continues to face an uphill struggle to convince even his own voters.

The man has not yet stamped his authority on the party and its beliefs. Since taking the steering wheel in hand last September, Delia played the waiting game until all internal elections were complete.

He ensured councillors and members elected more sympathetic officials in the party hierarchy and used the IVF leave motion to smoke out the rebels within the PN parliamentary group.

The record sum collected by the PN in the December telethon has boosted Delia’s standing within the party.

But judging Delia’s performance so far is hard. He will increasingly be compared to his predecessor and his direct rival Joseph Muscat.

Delia’s entry into the political scene came as a baptism of fire. In Daphne Caruana Galizia, he had a common nemesis with the Prime Minister.

During the summer months, the journalist used her Running Commentary to disparage Adrian Delia and all those who supported his leadership bid.

She lambasted people like Clyde Puli and David Agius over appointments to public posts under previous Nationalist administrations when she had closed an eye to cronyism. But vowing to oppose Delia’s populist style, nobody was sparred the onslaught and Puli and Agius happened to be sympathisers.

And then came the exposure of Delia’s links to a London-based prostitution network run by his Maltese clients a decade earlier. Delia had an offshore bank account in his name, which he held on behalf of his clients.

Delia denied wrongdoing and insisted he gave up the brief when he found out the London property held by his clients was being used for prostitution services.

The accusations did not damage Delia’s chances to become leader. Party members gave him thumbs-up when he faced Chris Said in a run-off last September but Delia faced stiff resistance within his parliamentary group.

Delia understood that talking only about corruption and bad governance was not enough to sway the electorate the PN’s way – the tactic used by his predecessor backfired badly in the last election.

But going about imposing his ‘new way’ proved to be harder than expected and in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s murder, Delia had no option but to initially maintain the hard-line stance of his predecessor.

There was an evolution though. From the hard-hitting Budget reaction speech in which he unconvincingly called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, Delia’s reaction to the announcement that the police had arrested 10 suspects in the Caruana Galizia murder investigation was measured.

Delia understood the importance of the development and did not belittle it, as some activists within the protest groups that took to the streets in the aftermath of the murder tried to do.

Whether this reflects Delia’s gradual consolidation of his grip on the party still has to be seen. Earlier this month Delia put distance between him and his predecessor, Simon Busuttil, who remains an overbearing figure in Parliament, when he offered the Prime Minister consensus on Malta’s decision to stay out of a new EU defence body.

Busuttil had questioned the judiciousness of opting out of the defence programme.

But as Delia finds his feet, many more pitfalls lie ahead and the PN leader will have to chart out a political course for a party that appears to have lost its identity after Malta joined the EU.

Getting there will require taking decisions that balance out the conservative and liberal wings in the PN, which can only mean that Delia’s baptism of fire is likely to extend well into the next year.

For the time being, though, Delia ends 2017 in a stronger position than when he took over the party reins. How long this relative calm will last might not depend on him alone.

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