[ANALYSIS] How MEP elections could determine who Malta’s political leaders will be in 2022

MEP elections next year have become intertwined with the fate of Malta’s two main political leaders. How will the dynamics of the election impact on the leadership of Muscat and Delia?

“Hi, I want your job...” - Joseph Muscat is greeted by European Council president Donald Tusk. The Maltese prime minister’s ambition for an EU post will require victory in 2019 and good showing by European socialists
“Hi, I want your job...” - Joseph Muscat is greeted by European Council president Donald Tusk. The Maltese prime minister’s ambition for an EU post will require victory in 2019 and good showing by European socialists

Labour leader Joseph Muscat’s road to winning the next European elections by a huge margin will certainly give the Maltese Prime Minister more serenity to decide on his personal political future. For the PN’s leader Adrian Delia, any failure to narrow the gap could well be the prelude to mutiny.

Muscat has given a personal twist to the MEP elections in 2019. After declaring he would not be running in another general election, a speech to supporters in Qormi last Sunday has galvanised Labour voters to make the European elections a manifestation of support for him to stay on… even if, another outstanding victory actually makes it simpler for Muscat to depart in glory.

For Delia, narrowing the gap in these elections is a do-or-die question, making it vital for him to win over a segment of voters that still voted for Labour in 2017 despite allegations of corruption levied constantly at the Muscat administration.

So for Muscat, the MEP elections are all about keeping all his options open. For Delia, a question of survival.

Muscat in a corner?

Joseph Muscat is a genius in political strategy. Rarely has the man put himself in a corner or limited his options with no space for manoeuvre. Indeed, his ability to keep all options open and have enough elbow room when taking decisions, even in an occasional U-turn, has been his main political skill.

His third public declaration that he will not run another general election sounded out of character. He may have simply repeated what he has said for years, namely that he would only serve two terms and step down, but the political dynamics changed after Caruana Galizia’s murder. Not only did this event – which sent shockwaves in Europe – dampen Muscat’s chances of clinching an institutional post in the EU, but it prompted Muscat to affirm his role as the strong national leader at a time of crisis.

Concurrently, appeals for Muscat to change his mind started gaining traction. So was Muscat caught off-guard when he told presenter Andrew Azzopardi that there was no turning back on his decision, or was he testing the ground on his imminent exit?

For it took only a week for Muscat to declare that he was definitely leading the party in the next MEP elections, without saying anything on what would happen after, at the very least rekindling hopes among Labour supporters that he may have a change of heart. The logic? Muscat playing on emotions, injecting a sense of urgency in the 2019 elections for those who want him to stay on.

For irrespective of whether he stays on or not, Muscat needs a strong affirmation in MEP elections next year. If he departs early he has to do so in a moment of glory, without leaving the party in some anguish of an unlikely but possible defeat. In short, the party can’t afford to go in succession mode, with the PN narrowing the gap, and ambitious aspirants to the post chipping away at his authority.

But to stay on he equally needs an electoral boost, one that would further exorcise the spectre of the Panama Papers and the ghosts unleashed by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

Keeping all windows open

So what would be Muscat’s options after MEP elections next year?

It could all depend on three main variables: the extent of his victory in these elections and the result of magisterial inquiries on Egrant and related cases that touch his closest allies.

One option is for Muscat to stay on as Prime Minister till the end of the legislature and preside over constitutional reforms while the party elects a new leader, who would only take on the constitutional reins of the country after the next general elections.  It is a logical, albeit too alien concept for the Maltese psyche, which gives the impression of confusion and can be easily exploited by the Opposition.

Top: If Muscat’s former One News colleague and now MEP Miriam Dalli – perceived to be close to Muscat – emerges as a frontrunner in the MEP elections, she could build on the momentum gained at the polls to galvanise support among Labour delegates and members who would elect the next Labour leader
Top: If Muscat’s former One News colleague and now MEP Miriam Dalli – perceived to be close to Muscat – emerges as a frontrunner in the MEP elections, she could build on the momentum gained at the polls to galvanise support among Labour delegates and members who would elect the next Labour leader

But if Muscat embarks on such a course he would still continue calling the shots, paving the way for a constitutional opening that can see his return to Maltese politics as president in the not-so-distant future, after testing the ground for a possible post in European institutions.

Muscat may also hope in a clean bill of health from the Egrant inquiry, becoming eligible once again for a European post (he is being touted for chief of the European Council of ministers) even if this may still remain in doubt thanks to other inquiries on close associates like his chief-of-staff Keith Schembri and doubts surrounding Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Muscat may also choose to call it a day a few months after MEP elections and let the new leader become Prime Minister. This could also mean the new PM might lack legitimacy from the polls. Past leaders like Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Lawrence Gonzi, who became PMs after winning internal contests, later suffered at the polls, with the former being defeated in his first electoral test and the latter winning by a wafer-thin majority in 2008. And after 2009, nothing was ever normal for the Gonzi administration.

Ironically, while many Labour voters would be hoping that a strong vote for their party would convince Muscat to stay on, in reality it would give their leader more peace of mind to leave: any losses would make it harder for Labour to have an orderly transition in a party molded in Muscat’s image.

Moreover, Muscat needs a strong affirmation to be in a position to condition the succession to his leadership. If his former One News colleague and now MEP Miriam Dalli – perceived to be close to Muscat – emerges as a frontrunner in the MEP elections, she could build on the momentum gained at the polls to galvanise support among Labour delegates and members who would elect the next Labour leader. A woman at the helm of Labour could well be the next logical step for Labour’s ‘progressive’ revolution. Whether or not the former Labour leader and MEP Alfred Sant pips her at the 2019 polls, could be a factor in how Muscat reshuffles his card.

Deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne may well become Labour’s new agent of change. With him, a major incognito are the futures of minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief-of-staff. Would Mizzi stay on with Fearne as leader, especially knowing the political differences between both fourth district rivals?
Deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne may well become Labour’s new agent of change. With him, a major incognito are the futures of minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief-of-staff. Would Mizzi stay on with Fearne as leader, especially knowing the political differences between both fourth district rivals?

What if losses to the PN affect Muscat’s decision? Such a scenario may well galvanise the chances of another candidate who can be seen as the representative of change, someone least connected to the Castille clique. Deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne may well become that agent of change. With him, a major incognito are the futures of minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief-of-staff. Would Mizzi stay on with Fearne as leader, especially knowing the political differences between both fourth district rivals?

Muscat may also interpret an outstanding victory in the 2019 elections as a sign from voters that they want him to stay on.

But if the PN does gain ground in any substantial way, Muscat may well interpret this a sign that the party needs him more than ever and that he can’t afford to leave his party orphaned.

It is clear that it was never Muscat’s plan to depart in a moment of difficulty. This is why Muscat cannot afford to see the PN gaining traction in next year’s election. It would be easier for a new leader, especially one perceived to be a Muscat loyalist, to face a vanquished PN than a resurgent Opposition.

Delia’s survival at stake

One major factor will be Delia’s campaigning skills. If he translates his human touch into votes, Delia may well be here to stay. But any failure to register gains in these elections may prove lethal to Delia
One major factor will be Delia’s campaigning skills. If he translates his human touch into votes, Delia may well be here to stay. But any failure to register gains in these elections may prove lethal to Delia

For the PN to narrow the gap, Delia has to gain ground among voters who voted Labour in 2017, making it vital for him to win over moderates, floaters and some traditional Labour voters. With regard to retaining the third seat that was clinched by luck in 2014, without increasing the PN’s vote share, that may be very hard.

Through his latest antics, veteran MEP David Casa may have strengthened his position among those who doubt Delia’s credentials and want the party to carry on with Simon Busuttil’s legacy. Retaining these voters is vital for Delia. Yet it is doubtful whether Casa is eating into Labour’s share of the vote or into leading PN MEP Roberta Metsola’s share in the restricted PN vote. Casa may well be fighting for his own political future in a party which may be turning its back on Busuttil’s legacy.

Whether newcomer Frank Psaila can present himself as the PN candidate who appeals to floaters and moderate voters remains to be seen. What is sure is that for Delia to close the gap he needs a variety of candidates to appeal to a diversity of electoral niches.

Delia’s major problem is that while being too vocal on good governance risks alienating some category of voters, including business lobbies, being absent on this issue risks further alienating voters who are still angry on Panamagate and its aftermath.

One major factor will be Delia’s campaigning skills. If he translates his human touch into votes, Delia may well be here to stay. But any failure to register gains in these elections may prove lethal to Delia. It may re-ignite doubts on his viability as PN leader. But the fear of another crushing defeat and the prospect of giving Muscat carte blanche on constitutional change, may reunite the party behind its new leader.   

One major obstacle for Delia may be the performance of third party candidates who win over PN voters turned off by Delia, or disgruntled Labour voters. This would ensure that any drop in Labour’s share of the vote does not translate into a narrowing of the gap between the big parties. This means that while MEP elections may have a bearing on Muscat’s decision to stand down, this electoral test has even greater consequences on Delia’s future than on Muscat’s.

In this way the elections may well determine the leaders who would face each other in the 2022 general election.

Will the next general election see Delia pitted against Muscat or against a new Labour leader? Or will the PN itself end up having to choose a new leader? 2019 might hold this very answer.

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