Labour leadership race: ready, set… wait

PL activists are bracing themselves for a leadership contest to find Muscat’s replacement, and at the counting hall prospective leadership candidates mixed with agents, joined in their celebrations, hugged and patted them on the back

Labour Party activists smiled, banged in joy on the Perspex, chanted ‘Joseph, Joseph’ and walked the corridors of the Naxxar counting hall with heads held high.

The PL not only won the European Parliament election resoundingly last week but painted the local council map red.

Here was a party that has got used to winning one election after another in a decade under the leadership of Joseph Muscat.

But in the counting hall the air of jubilation among PL activists and candidates was also underpinned by trepidation over the dawn of the post-Muscat era.

Joseph Muscat has indicated that he will not be contesting another general election but the timing of his departure remains uncertain. All indications point towards an exit after the summer months.

There is the chance Muscat will decide to stay on but insiders believe this is a remote possibility.

Although the vast majority of party activists and supporters want him to stay, many are slowly realising that Muscat’s departure is now a step closer to reality after these elections.

PL activists are bracing themselves for a leadership contest to find Muscat’s replacement and at the counting hall, prospective leadership candidates mixed with agents, joined in their celebrations, hugged and patted them on the back.

The race has not yet kicked off but the contenders have been doing the warm-up laps and this was more than evident over the past few weeks.

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli
Labour MEP Miriam Dalli

Miriam Dalli

The European election result gave Miriam Dalli a strong reason to lay claim to the leadership when Muscat steps down.

Dalli has so far been very coy on the subject with close aides telling MaltaToday that she will not make any move until Muscat makes clear his intentions.

The Labour MEP received more than 63,000 votes in the election, the highest number of votes achieved by any PL candidate ever. Her performance shows that she enjoys widespread popular appeal, an important ingredient for any prospective leader.

Dalli secured a quarter of all votes cast in the election, obtaining more than the combined vote of the two PN candidates who were elected.

Her campaign slogan, The Next Level (Il-Livell li Jmiss), which was used on several occasions by the Prime Minister himself, may have set the tone for Dalli’s eventual leadership bid.

Her result sent shockwaves within the party and pretenders to the throne will undoubtedly be taking note of her popularity and the support she has received from people close to Muscat.

Transport minister Ian Borg
Transport minister Ian Borg

Ian Borg

The Infrastructure Minister will not publicly admit that he is interested in the leadership post when Muscat resigns but over the past month he has upped his game, adopting the slogan ‘Getting Things Done’.

The 33-year-old minister is using the slogan on social media as he capitalises on the high visibility his portfolio gives him. The multitude of road works being undertaken is unprecedented. He does have a mega budget that no roads minister before him had but Borg has delivered well since being entrusted for the first time with a ministry in 2017.

On Facebook, last week, Borg emphasised the fact that he was present on the ground with mayors, councillors and activists throughout the electoral campaign and promised to remain with them “every coming day so that together we will change the face of Malta and Gozo for the better”.

Party sources have told MaltaToday that Borg has been slowly building a network of influence at community level, which could come to good use in a leadership contest.

Health minister Chris Fearne
Health minister Chris Fearne

Chris Fearne

It is an open secret that the Deputy Prime Minister harbours the ambition to lead the PL if Muscat leaves. However, publicly, Chris Fearne has always insisted that he wants to convince the Prime Minister to stay on.

Fearne enjoyed visibility during the electoral campaign by virtue of his role as deputy prime minister. His first performance during the 1 May mass meeting left much to be desired in terms of delivery but he improved in the last rally of the campaign in Birgu.

During the deputy leadership race after the last general election, Fearne proved to be a good campaigner, coming from behind to upstage Helena Dalli and Edward Scicluna. Party sources told MaltaToday that since then, Fearne has continued to build support among party delegates with the help of an organised team.

This is a strategic move, given that a leadership contest would first start with a vote among delegates to whittle down the field to two before going to the members for a final vote. But Fearne also enjoys gravitas among the wider electorate, which cannot be dismissed in any leadership race.

Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi
Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi

Konrad Mizzi

The Tourism Minister has publicly insisted that he would like Muscat to stay on but he has openly approached delegates and party activists with his ambition of contesting the party leadership when the vacancy arises.

Party sources have indicated that Mizzi enjoys popularity among Labour rank and file and he could be the wild card in the pack.

But he also comes with some heavy baggage that members wanting to win an election will not easily overlook when push comes to shove. Mizzi may very well try to use a possible leadership bid as leverage to ensure he is not left by the wayside when Muscat is out of the picture.

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