Joseph Muscat has blown the whistle on the leadership race

Sources within the Labour Party have claimed that Muscat will likely lead the Labour Party into next year's MEP elections and quit soon afterwards

Chris Fearne and Miriam Dalli: possible contenders
Chris Fearne and Miriam Dalli: possible contenders

Many Labour Party insiders have interpreted Joseph Muscat’s declaration on Radju Malta’s Ghandi Xi Nghid that he will not run for office again, as a sure signal that the race to succeed him is now open.

Muscat’s emphatic declaration that he will not change his mind on a pledge to quit before the next election was unequivocal, party sources said.

“He practically blew the whistle and opened the contest for his succession,” MaltaToday was told by party insiders.

The interview broadcast on 10 February dashed the hopes of many within the party who want Muscat to stay on and lead the party into a third general election in 2022.

The prime minister’s declaration opens the way for the two most likely candidates – Deputy Prime Minister and health minister Chris Fearne and MEP Miriam Dalli – to start campaigning.

“It is now a race that will slowly gather momentum over the next 12 months,” the sources said, adding there may be others like Transport Minister Ian Borg and MP Robert Abela, who could be interested.

However, how the leadership race will unfold is still conditioned by Muscat’s solid grip on the party and the widespread trust he enjoys.

“The campaigning will be low key with candidates establishing important connections within the party and assessing the level of support they enjoy,” the sources said.

Fearne has the advantage of being in Cabinet with a direct link to fellow ministers and the government’s work programme. The health minister is also renowned as a good campaigner, having eclipsed veteran Helena Dalli and Edward Scicluna in the deputy leadership race.

But Fearne could also be saddled with the problems of an administration in its second term, not least having to deal with the fallout of Konrad Mizzi’s hospitals privatisation deal.

On the other hand, Miriam Dalli enjoys the support of many in the Muscat camp but has so far remained impassive on what she intends to do.

Dalli’s latest appointment to lead the European Parliament’s legislative effort on vehicle emission standards signals her growing stature in Brussels. But party insiders said the MEP would have to engage more with the domestic political scene to counter Fearne’s presence on the ground.

The dark horse in the race could be Ian Borg. But the young highflyer may very well wait and see what Dalli will do before embarking on a campaign strategy.

What remains to be seen is the timing of Muscat’s departure. While some are speculating that he may choose to leave as early as next summer to allow the new leader time to gear up for next year’s European Parliament election, party insiders have dismissed this possibility.

“It is very likely Joseph Muscat will lead the PL in next year’s electoral appointment and quit soon afterwards,” the sources said.

If that is the case, Dalli may benefit from the national platform the EP election will give her. A successful re-election as MEP will only help to boost her standing, especially in the face of a leadership contest that will eventually be decided by the party members and not just delegates.