Looking at 2018 | Heir apparent, the search for Muscat’s successor

Looking at 2018 | Nobody inside Labour wants to broach the subject of Muscat’s succession, unless the PM signals a departure date, if at all. But 2018 may be the year of preparation for the pretenders to the throne

Nobody in the Labour Party fancies the prospect of seeing Joseph Muscat go, at least not after delivering two emphatic general election victories and seeing off two Nationalist Party opponents.

In the run-up to the June election, Muscat had said this was his last general election at the helm of the party. Few inside the PL and its supporters wanted to believe him.

Many are urging Muscat to rescind that promise and stay on for the next electoral appointment in 2022.

Read also: What will Joseph Muscat do next?

If Muscat trounces Adrian Delia’s Nationalist Party at the European Parliament election in 2019, the voices urging him to stay will only get stronger.

Boosted by the successful handling of Malta’s EU presidency in 2017, Muscat has set his sights on a top European post. The EU’s top echelons will all be up for grabs after the EP election. With Muscat being somewhat of a veteran prime minister at the European Council, the prospects of him getting one of the top jobs is not remote, even if much depends on what happens in the next 12 months at the European and domestic level.

In many aspects 2018 is a wait-and-see year but it could also be the time for Labour activists to start absorbing the prospect of Muscat’s possible exit from domestic politics in 2019.

And if that happens, the next big decision will be finding a replacement. Filling Muscat’s shoes will not be easy. He made Labour electable, steered the country to economic success, strengthened civil liberties and despite the problems of good governance that have hounded his administrations, continues to inspire widespread trust.

There are, however, two likely candidates to take over Muscat’s mantle and 2018 will be the year in which Labour MEP Miriam Dalli and Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne will groom the grassroots.

Make no mistake: Dalli and Fearne will make it amply clear that they prefer Muscat staying on until the next general election and will publicly insist the Prime Minister change his mind.

But they also know that at some point they may have to take the plunge and when that happens they will want to be in a good position.


Labour MEP Miriam Dalli
Labour MEP Miriam Dalli

Miriam Dalli

A former journalist with the Labour Party’s TV station and subsequently a law graduate, the 41-year-old entered the electoral fray for the first time in 2014.

She contested the European Parliament election and obtained an impressive 23,479 first count votes, placing second among PL candidates after former prime minister Alfred Sant.

A household face as a result of television exposure over the years, Dalli was elected as one of three Labour MEPs.

Dalli’s entry into the counting hall when her election was confirmed provoked scenes of jubilation among PL agents reminiscent of a nascent leader. Since then, her name has been touted as a possible replacement for Muscat.

She was entrusted by the Labour leader last July to captain a party initiative, named LEAD, to attract more women to the political fold. When launching the initiative, Muscat had said it was not fair that half the population was not represented adequately in Parliament.

Muscat’s decision to appoint Dalli to the role was interpreted by many as a sign of the direction he would like the party to take after his departure. A woman at the helm of the PL would be a first for either of the two major political parties and the first time Malta would have a female prime minister.

Dalli has a natural disposition towards people, a spin-off from her previous career as a journalist. She also enjoys widespread respect and has remained aloof from the ugly bickering of domestic partisanship despite having militated within the PL for all her adult life.

However, Dalli’s engagement with domestic politics has been sparse over the past three years, something she will have to fix over the next 12 months.

She will have to make calculated intrusions into the political debate back home, to start asserting her persona on the party and the country.

Dalli has carved out a niche of her own in the European Parliament, focusing on health and environmental issues. She was at the forefront of the EP’s initiative to try and get the herbicide glyphosate banned and has been vocal on women’s rights.

But that alone will not be enough if she harbours the ambition to become the next PL leader.

Admittedly, Dalli has adopted a very cautious approach, even among close associates, whenever the subject of party leadership is brought up. She shied away from contesting the last general election, believing her time in Brussels was not yet up.

We can expect to see more of Dalli in Malta over the next 12 months as MEPs enter the last leg of the Brussels legislature before the EP election scheduled for June 2019.

But Dalli will have to step up a gear in 2018 if Muscat’s promised departure starts looking likelier by the day.


Chris Fearne

A paediatric surgeon by profession, the 54-year-old entered the political fray soon after Joseph Muscat became leader of the Labour Party in 2008.

Chris Fearne had addressed one of the early manifestations organised by the PL in Valletta at the time and went on to contest the 2013 election with success. His political career has been short but stellar. In 2014 he was appointed parliamentary secretary under the wings of then health and energy minister Konrad Mizzi, only to be appointed health minister in April 2016, following the Panama Papers revelations.

In the last election, Fearne was elected with a strong vote from two districts and went on to become PL deputy leader parliamentary affairs after seeing off Helena Dalli and Edward Scicluna in a close contest. The position automatically propelled Fearne into the role of deputy prime minister.

The internal party race saw Fearne emerge as a good campaigner. He started the least favourite of the three candidates – he did not have Helena Dalli’s roots and did not possess the fatherly-like gravitas of Scicluna.

However, Fearne turned out to be a convincing character among the party grassroots. While projecting the modernity and professionalism that Muscat instilled in the party, he was able to communicate with the grassroots in a language they understood. His prediction, several months before the election, that the PL would win by 40,000 votes, put him in good stead with activists.

His role as Health Minister also gives him a good platform to reach out to people outside the party. He gets the credit for the good done by the health service but he also has to be wary of pitfalls, if things don’t go quite as planned.

He described the controversial transition of the public-private partnership arrangement with Vitals Global Healthcare to Steward Healthcare last week as a positive development given the new operators’ proven track record in the health sector.

It was his way of putting distance between him and Konrad Mizzi, who crafted the concession agreement.

In his lacklustre interview with journalist Tim Sebastian, Fearne had washed his hands from the controversial hospitals deal by saying that it was not him who signed the deal, but that is a card he can no longer play.

As Health Minister, any failure to deliver on the promised benefits – three state-of-the-art hospitals in Gozo, St Luke’s and Karin Grech – will come back to haunt him and test his resilience.

That Fearne, the hard worker, is also ambitious is an open secret, even though he has often said that his job is to convince the Prime Minister to stay on.

Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing for a politician but Fearne will have to navigate the waters carefully. He will not want to be seen as a vulture hovering over Muscat’s head.

In many aspects 2018 will be a wait-and-see year but Fearne will also use the time to gradually extend the strong network he built at constituency level to the rest of the territory, something made easier by virtue of his deputy leadership role.

Like his political mentor Joseph Muscat, Fearne will not leave anything to chance as he prepares for the eventuality that may see him contesting the party leadership in 2019.


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