Looking at 2019 | Joseph Muscat’s choices and Labour’s future

Joseph Muscat has been very careful in keeping the cards close to his chest over his future but 2019 may be the year the Prime Minister finally reveals his hand. MaltaToday tries to gaze into the crystal ball

The contest to replace Muscat is likely to be a hotly contested four-way race between Miriam Dalli, Robert Abela, Chris Fearne and Ian Borg.
The contest to replace Muscat is likely to be a hotly contested four-way race between Miriam Dalli, Robert Abela, Chris Fearne and Ian Borg.

Joseph Muscat’s decision to put an expiry date on his head during the 2017 electoral campaign is one of the few inexplicable decisions he has taken.

Muscat tried to emulate former British prime minister Tony Blair when he said that he will not lead the Labour Party into a third general election. It was a decision that surprised many.

But the parallelism with Blair starts and ends with the declaration itself because the political circumstances underpinning the decisions were completely different for both men.

In 2005, Blair faced his third election and declared that he would not lead the British Labour Party into a fourth election. The British prime minister was at his lowest ebb, facing a deeply dissatisfied electorate over the Iraq war. Blair won the election with a reduced majority and resigned two years later.

However, Muscat’s situation was completely different.

A confounding decision

In 2017, the Prime Minister was asking the electorate for a second term. The country was passing through a good patch and Muscat retained significantly high trust ratings.

Despite the Egrant allegations that dominated the electoral campaign, all signs pointed towards a second decisive Labour victory.

Why Muscat chose to anticipate the end of his career with that declaration confounded even the Prime Minister’s closest aides. Muscat’s trust rating has soared since the election and the man remains popular with a wide cross section of the electorate. With an economy performing above par and an Opposition in tatters, Muscat will be facing the European Parliament and local council elections in May on a high.

The Labour Party is very likely to score another big victory, making it five national victories (excluding local council elections) in a row since Muscat’s election as Labour leader in 2008. The circumstances will militate against a decision to leave and Muscat will face increasing internal pressure not to do so.

But the Prime Minister has kept the cards close to his chest so far. Not even people close to Muscat can predict what the future holds. “This is a subject the Prime Minister does not talk about and nobody cares to bring up,” a source within the Labour Party told me over the Christmas period.

Nobody within the party wants Muscat to leave and that sentiment was articulated a couple of weeks ago by former leader Alfred Sant, who urged the Prime Minister to stay on.

But there is a widespread feeling within the PL’s rank and file that 2019 could bring about changes to the party, spurred on by Muscat’s pledge to leave at some point before the 2022 general election.

A tough European bet

It is an open secret that Muscat harbours an ambition to take up a top European post. The two posts Muscat is eyeing are those of European Council president – currently occupied by Donald Tusk – and EU foreign policy chief – occupied by Federica Mogherini. Both will be up for grabs in the second half of 2019.

Getting there though does not depend solely on Muscat’s will.

Much will depend on the shape of the European political landscape after the EP election and the power game that will ensue as the different political groupings jockey for key roles.

The socialists could easily be pushed into third place by the rise of the far-right parties in several countries, including Italy, Austria and Spain. A weakened socialist grouping will do the Prime Minister no favours, although Muscat remains the most successful social democrat in government.

Muscat is a veteran of sorts around the table of prime ministers and heads of government at the Council, but he also comes from a small country at a time when France and Germany will want to call the shots after the UK’s departure.

But other realities will kick in, posing stumbling blocks to Muscat’s ambitions.

He is saddled by the shadow of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder and the accusations that not enough is being done to find the mastermind.
Muscat also faces flak over the decision to keep Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in office despite their involvement in the Panama Papers scandal. This state of affairs keeps feeding fuel to the criticism from several EU countries over Malta’s advantageous tax system even though it has nothing to do with Mizzi and Schembri.

These two domestic issues will curry no favour with MEPs and any new information linked to 17 Black that may emerge in the months ahead continue to make Muscat’s life difficult in a complicated European context.

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli
Labour MEP Miriam Dalli

A party leader and prime minister

The prospect of Muscat landing a European post remains bleak at this stage but if he manages, the Labour Party would have to brace itself for a leadership contest during the summer months.

The contest to replace Muscat is likely to be a hotly contested four-way race between Miriam Dalli, Robert Abela, Chris Fearne and Ian Borg. The field may whittle down in due course depending on various factors.

But any leadership contest may have to wait if Muscat does not secure a European appointment, leaving open the question as to when he will leave.

Sources have posited the option of Muscat staying on as prime minister until the end of the term but making way for the election of a leader for the PL just the same.

This decision would, for the first time in Malta’s political history, split the roles of prime minister from party leader. “It is uncharacteristic in the Maltese scene and not a likely option but with Muscat one can never tell… he has broken convention on more than one occasion,” sources said.

But Muscat may yet decide to break his own pledge and stay on to challenge a third PN leader in as many general elections come 2022. It will be a sweet victory for Labour if Muscat demolishes the third PN opponent in a row, although this is not something that enthuses the Prime Minister, people close to him tell me.

Whatever the Prime Minister will decide about his future, he still has some key decisions to make before the EP election.

A president and European Commissioner

In April, the presidential term of Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca comes to an end and Muscat will have to nominate someone in her stead.
Names have been bandied about, including that of Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, but Muscat may want to look outside his Cabinet for the next president.

Health minister Chris Fearne
Health minister Chris Fearne

Former foreign minister George Vella is an option Muscat is believed to be considering actively, although it also depends on whether the Zejtun doctor is interested in the role.

Choosing the next president from outside the Cabinet will help avoid a reshuffle.

It is unlikely Muscat will want to ruffle many feathers, especially if he intends to leave. Any reshuffle would be left to his successor.

The Prime Minister will, however, have another decision to make in the first six months when Malta nominates its European Commissioner.
Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, Equality Minister Helena Dalli and former deputy prime minister Louis Grech are all potential candidates for the role.

Scicluna and Grech are former MEPs and know what makes the European Parliament tick. Furthermore, Scicluna and Dalli have acquired a European profile because of their domestic successes in finances and LGBTIQ rights.

If the choice falls on any of the ministers, their replacement is likely to be a parliamentary secretary to minimise the disruption to Cabinet.

The unknown

Politics is also about unpredictable circumstances that may develop along the way.

One of the unknown factors that will continue to hound Muscat in 2019 is Panama Papers and any new information that may emerge linked to 17 Black and Macbridge, the Dubai companies listed as target clients for the Panama companies of Mizzi and Schembri.

So far, the damning information linking 17 Black to Tumas Group managing director Yorgen Fenech, has failed to dent Muscat’s popularity. The Prime Minister brushed off the matter, insisting he will only act after investigations are over.

Whether the new year will bring with it fresh information on Macbridge still has to be seen and although an electorate enjoying a period of affluence may still close one eye, a second bombshell may be a tad harder to simply ignore.

Muscat may very well use the occasion to do what he should have done in 2016 and ask Mizzi and Schembri to step down, or stick with them, knowing full well that he will be leaving soon.

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