[ANALYSIS] When will he make his exit? Joseph Muscat keeps them guessing

The Prime Minister has set an expiry date for his tenure. But Muscat, the chess-player, seems to know better than to tell both opponents and pretenders when he will actually leave

Please. Don't. Go. Labour deputy PM Chris Fearne may well be genuinely expressing a feeling among Labourites that Joseph Muscat’s departure before the next election would be premature
Please. Don't. Go. Labour deputy PM Chris Fearne may well be genuinely expressing a feeling among Labourites that Joseph Muscat’s departure before the next election would be premature

Labour deputy leader Chris Fearne on Wednesday publicly called on Joseph Muscat to stay on till the next general election in 2022. Speculation has been mounting since Muscat declared in 2017 he would not run for another general election. So why is Muscat keeping everyone guessing?

Turn back the clock 15 years when Alfred Sant reversed his earlier decision to resign from Labour leader after two consecutive electoral defeats, having been solicited by Labour crowds to stay on. He went on to lose by a whisker in the 2008 general election.

Something similar may be occurring in Labour now, albeit in completely different circumstances. For now it is Sant’s successor, Muscat, who is being solicited to stay on after winning two consecutive superlative victories. Sant was retained despite being widely seen as a liability after a series of defeats, but Muscat is considering resigning after winning every electoral appointment.

Making history

Muscat had already taken a bold commitment, reiterated in 2015. “I always said that we have – that I have – a 15-year plan: five years in Opposition and 10 years in government.”

Two self-imposed terms, mirroring the legal stay for US presidents, and signaling a departure from his party’s history, dominated first by Dom Mintoff serving for 35 years, then by Alfred Sant for 16. Only Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici bowed down after eight years and two defeats.

Muscat’s plan looked bold and fresh. It dispelled fears of entrenchment in power. It served as an antidote to his growing personality cult – accentuated this week with a rally for his 10th leadership anniversary – which tolerable though it may be, could easily turn toxic if he stays on.

Yet the commitment to leave after ten years in office still offered Muscat two options: either retire before the next general election or immediately after it. His first term in office has already been cut by a year, leaving Muscat another six years in office, one of which could coincide with a year-long leadership contest after the general election.

But in February when interviewed by Andrew Azzopardi, Muscat was categorical: he said he would stick to his word and step down from hispost before the next election.

Ever since that declaration, the party has been in fibrillation as speculation mounted on an imminent leadership race possibly immediately after MEP elections to ensure enough time for the new leader to settle in.

Chris Fearne’s intentions

It was in this context that Chris Fearne, Muscat’s deputy leader and one of the candidates widely touted to be interested in his post, appealed to Muscat directly to abscond on his commitment and stay on as leader till the next general election, in an article penned in the Times a few hours before the party was going to celebrate Muscat’s 10 years as leader at Paola.

Why did Fearne do that? He may well be genuinely expressing a feeling among Labourites that Muscat’s departure before the next election would be premature. But being interested in becoming leader himself, Fearne could also be trying to curry favour with Muscat’s loyalists and the party machine that will have a say on who would succeed the present leader.

After all, Fearne was the only one of the three candidates for deputy leader who did not exclude a future leadership bid. And he was also reportedly not Muscat’s favourite for deputy prime minister.

Fearne may well prefer a contest held after a general election victory, in which he would have had a big role as deputy leader, rather than after the 2019 European elections in which potential rivals like Miriam Dalli are expected to take the limelight.

Muscat’s guessing game

It may well be the case that Muscat himself is leaving everyone guessing as he himself has not yet taken a final decision.

Probably his initial commitment was based on two calculations. The first was a historical observation that parties in government tend to start losing support after two consecutive terms in office as happened to Gorg Borg Olivier after 1966, Mintoff after 1976 and Fenech Adami after 1992. The PN did manage to win three consecutive elections after 1998. But Gonzi only managed to win by a whisker in 2008.

Based on current polls Muscat seems to defy these historical odds.

The second calculation may have been based on the possibility of a top European post, which became increasingly unlikely following revelations on Panamagate and more so, after the assassination of Caruana Galizia.

Still weighing on Muscat is Aaron Bugeja’s magisterial inquiry. Muscat has promised to resign if any evidence or suspicion linking him or his wife Michelle to the secret Panama company Egrant is found. But if the inquiry absolves him, it may either renew the prospect of a European post or increase his staying power as leader.

Other inquiries on Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi may also drag on during the next five years. This may increase uncertainty if Muscat does stay on as leader. On the other hand, the advent of a new Labour leader may well disconnect Labour from Panamagate. This would have a disarming effect on the Opposition.

Another variable would be the scale of Labour’s victory in next year’s MEP elections and whether Adrian Delia will stay on as PN leader subsequently. Delia himself does not know who he will be facing in the next general election. Ironically one of the advantages of this uncertainty in the Labour camp is that of leaving the PN guessing on what kind of leader it will be facing in 2022.

The MEP election will give both parties a hint of how Delia will fare against Muscat. But it remains a mystery whether the two leaders will face each other in 2022.

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