[ANALYSIS] Joseph Muscat, Mk 3. Will he retain the Teflon touch?

How does Joseph Muscat, a year into his second term in office, compare with himself as the Prime Minister elected in 2013 and the Opposition leader elected in 2008?

Slavish adulation. Photo: James Bianchi
Slavish adulation. Photo: James Bianchi

Joseph Muscat in Opposition and during his first three years in government came across as an agile, charming, albeit cocky, leader… pretty much someone the average Nationalist voter would not fear to see running the show.

His first term of office exorcised lingering fears of Labour’s ability to manage the economy, explaining why a category of PN voters who had voted Gonzi in 2013 shifted to Labour in 2017.

But since Panamagate and particularly since his re-election in 2017, his troops on the social media – which include political appointees – have tainted his image as a moderate leader, by cultivating slavish adulation for the leader and showing contempt for critics.

This also came as a result of the Egrant allegations, which further polarised Maltese politics around the figure of Joseph Muscat before the 2017 election.

What remained consistent over the years has been Muscat’s Teflon touch. When confronted by a problem or facing trouble, he continues to show a remarkable ability to deflect the issue without enduring lasting damage. The latest polls showing Muscat trusted by 53% of the electorate indicate that he is still unscathed despite rising concerns on corruption, the environment, traffic and foreigners. But is the weight of government taking its toll on Muscat’s ability to nip problems in the bud?

The promise of change

Elected in 2008 with the promise of making his party electable again he was given a blank cheque to transform it. He did so by diluting the core message to the least common denominator, which could appeal to the centre ground of Maltese politics.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat this week celebrated his tenth year as leader of the Labour Party
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat this week celebrated his tenth year as leader of the Labour Party

Consistently he remained a centrist on social and economic policies leaning to the right on wealth creation and to the left in distribution. This looked deceptive in Opposition when many like myself suspected that he lacked a plan on how to how to square the circle.

But in government he showed he had a plan: by pressing the accelerator on construction and attracting more foreigners to Malta, he found a way of finding more money to spend without having to resort to higher taxes. This has enabled him to exorcise the spectre of Mintoffian autarky even if in the long run, it may well impinge on his historical legacy, especially if Maltese landscapes are ruined in the process.

However, when it comes to civil liberties Muscat may well claim the title of emancipator.

From his first days as Opposition leader Muscat smelled an opportunity on the civil liberties front.

Initially he moved very cautiously. He did not commit his party for divorce but campaigned personally for its introduction. When asked for his opinion in 2008 he expressed disagreement with full marriage equality and gay adoptions. But as society changed, he grew bolder, especially after being elected in office in 2013, when he decisively embarked on changes, which changed people’s lives.

Up to that point he did so without being out of step with society.

Yet there were also instances where Muscat changed tack. One clear case was the environment. In his leadership bid 10 years ago, Muscat proudly spoke of his role in raising the golf course issue in the European parliament. 10 years later he presides over a government which has already approved four ODZ petrol stations on 12,000sq.m of agricultural land.

In Opposition he smelled an opportunity by presenting himself as a populist on immigration issues, a stance which he affirmed in his push back threat immediately after being elected in office but from which he slowly moved away as the economy became increasingly reliant on foreign labour and the sale of passports to rich oligarchs. In his second term Muscat is openly proclaiming his vision of a cosmopolitan Malta.

The changing of the guard

Muscat was also ready to re-open the doors both to the old guard and to disgruntled Nationalists. Unlike his predecessor, he did not bear grudges and was willing to accept anyone who defects from the other side.

Attending his first rally were former ministers kept at a distance by Alfred Sant, including Wistin Abela, Salvu Sant, John Buttigieg and Joe Grima. Eventually he forged new alliances with ex-Nationalist like Alfred Sant’s nemesis Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, and architect and former PN mayor Robert Musumeci.

Other Nationalists who joined Labour’s winning team in its first legislature included former Net TV journalist Karl Stagno Navarra and former Lija mayor Ian Castaldi Paris. Muscat was never short of role models for Nationalists crossing the Rubicon.

Not to turn off these voters Muscat threaded carefully between honouring the Mintoffian legacy especially after the patriarch’s death while opening his party to former PN voters by admitting that in 1987 people made the right choice in changing their government.

As society changed, he grew bolder, especially after being elected in office in 2013, when he decisively embarked on changes, which changed people’s lives. Up to that point he did so without being out of step with society

Even in his first term in office his government was hesitant on erecting a monument for Mintoff in Castille square, initially opting for the more abstract ‘eternal flame’ monument.

While he opened his party to new recruits he was ruthless in eliminating any rival power base, removing Jason Micallef from secretary general and Anglu Farrugia from deputy leader.

As PM he reluctantly but decisively axed Manuel Mallia and Michael Falzon when they became liabilities.

All changed after Panamagate, after which Muscat changed tack preferring to stick up for his closest collaborators instead of ditching them to save face.

In fact this represented the first sign of paralysis on Muscat’s part.

For although Muscat has survived Panamagate it remains the greatest blemish on his track record. And in this case Muscat failed to nip the problem in the bud, preferring to invest his own political capital in saving the skins of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, thus fueling doubts on his motivation for doing so.

More bullish after 2017

Emboldened by the result of last year’s election, Muscat in his second term is more entrenched, bullish and reliant on cultivating consent on the social media. He is now someone who can elicit both devotion and fear.

While he still panders to former Nationalists through an appeal to national unity and moderation whenever he speaks, his soldiers on the social media, including those recruited from the Nationalist Party, have become increasingly aggressive and hostile to dissenting voices.

He has also been keener on cultivating a cult for Dom Mintoff. This may well be a symbolic concession to Labourites wary of the party’s neo-liberal drift.

But ultimately it also serves in projecting Muscat as a new Mintoff confronting ‘conservative’ forces. In so doing he risks upsetting those including converts from the PN, who still associate Mintoff with fear and violence.

Muscat as a new Mintoff?

This is reflected in a more hostile approach to the mainstream media including the European press, which became increasingly critical following the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Before even being elected Muscat was keen to project himself as a ‘Europeanist’, something which accentuated the change from Alfred Sant’s euroscepticism. His leadership bid had been endorsed by European Socialist and MEP Martin Schultz. And in his first year in office he basked in favourable comments on the economist as a “rarity” in European social democracy.

Yet 10 years on it is a socialist MEP, Anna Gomes, who is leading a rule of law committee investigating Muscat’s government. Moreover, most critical reports are being published in newspapers with a centre-left European audience like the Guardian and La Repubblica.

Muscat’s more confrontational attitude was summed up by his call on Labour supporters to turn up for a meeting on May 1 as a “reply” to the Daphne Project.

But as he typically does, after raising fears of a showdown, Muscat simply appeals for national unity while addressing the crowds, showing a remarkable ability of keeping the spirits of his troops high without himself enflaming their anger.

But while Muscat plays the unity card, Labour supporters, including government appointees and MPs, have been bolder in their attacks on critical voices like the archbishop and civil society protestors.

Yet Muscat still can show some degree of flexibility when faced by widespread opposition. The recent amendments to the IVF bill which address concerns on anonymity of gametes and surrogacy, are testimony to this. This represents a degree of continuity with his approach in other controversies like Zonqor point and the IIP programme, where he changed the original proposals.

The Teflon touch

This ability to compromise from more extreme positions, remains one of Muscat’s best skills in defusing popular anger.

Yet the government machine is also showing the signs of inertia in the face of bureaucratic blunders like the overcharging of costumers in electricity bills issued by ARMS.

This is particularly dangerous considering that Muscat had constructed his own image in contrast to the lethargic Gonzi administration in matters like refunding VAT paid on car registration tax.

Muscat also seems less keen to engage in debates even with an Opposition leader who is still struggling to assert his leadership in his own party. On the other hand Muscat seems keener on addressing the Labour crowds.

Yet the greatest paradox of our times may well be that Muscat is being portrayed as a strongman at the very moment when he is hinting that he won’t be leading his party in the next general election.

By saying that he will not stay on as leader, Muscat dispels fears that he is entrenching himself and his close aides in Castille. Yet will Muscat risk leaving a vacuum behind him? This may be Muscat’s price to pay for playing the role of the strongman politician.