Six reasons why Muscat should leave before the next election

Six good reasons Joseph Muscat should stick to his word and leave before the next general election

In 2018, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat told Andrew Azzopardi on Radju Malta that under “no circumstance” would he change his mind about exiting before the next election.

This means that Muscat can still honour his 2018 commitment by staying on as Prime Minister until the next general election, which is three years down the line. It also means that somewhere along the line, the party will have to elect a new leader. Here are six good reasons why he should stick to his word and go before the next general election.

1. His departure would cement his reformist legacy

By departing before the next election Muscat would be formalising an unwritten rule of Maltese politics: that political cycles usually last two terms.

Eddie Fenech Adami was defeated after nine years in office between 1987 and 1996. He regained office in 1998 and served for another six years, only to resign a year after the 2003 general election to be replaced by Lawrence Gonzi. Mintoff did leave midway in his third consecutive term, but only after his moral authority was severely tested by the 1981 election result, which saw Labour losing its popular majority after a decade in office.

By imposing a term limit on himself Muscat could well be missing on the strong chance of becoming the first PM in Maltese history to win power by securing a popular majority in three consecutive elections. So why is he intent on relinquishing this opportunity? Perhaps he genuinely believes in the need for checks and balances. For while nobody would describe Angela Merkel as an autocrat for serving as German Chancellor since 2005, the role of PM in Malta is strengthened by a winner-takes-all political system which is unique in Europe, where most governments are formed by coalitions.

So bowing out after 10 years in office could act as a check on the near presidential power enjoyed by Maltese PMs. Such a step is no substitute for the need for substantial constitutional reforms like those recommended by the Venice Commission, but dispels the growing perception of a self-perpetuating clique planting its roots permanently in Castille, a perception reinforced by the impunity enjoyed by Muscat’s allies in the aftermath of the Panama scandal.

Departing before 2022 would set a precedent for future Maltese PMs, allow Muscat to leave on a high note having ushered in radical civil liberties and social reforms, and having dispelled the perception that Labour is a hazard for the economy. These three years in office could seal his legacy through the introducing further checks and balances, in the full knowledge that he won’t be around after 2022.

2. By changing his mind Muscat would give the impression he was just after a top EU job

Muscat never linked his departure to an EU appointment. While he never denied his interest in such a post and actively lobbied to secure it, he grounded his intentions to leave after ten years in office in his firm belief that politicians have an expiry date: two terms for PMs and 20 years for MPs. But not resigning now, Muscat has gained more time to ensure an orderly transition for his party which is no longer faced with the bleak prospect of Muscat’s sudden departure. He may now stay on as PM completing his term in office, while the party elects a new leader ready to lead the party in to the next election.

But going back on his word by contemplating a third term, would give the impression that remaining in office in Malta is a fallback after failing to get what he wanted in Europe. Muscat is now duty-bound to commit himself to complete his term in office while ensuring a seamless transition to a new leadership.

3. Staying on after 2022 risks strengthening the personality cult, made tolerable by his imminent exit

By saying that he would only serve for a decade, Muscat found a balance between the strong leader die-hards love, and the less overbearing PM appreciated by liberals and MOR voters. In this way Muscat could nurture his own personality cult while giving the impression this was harmless in view of his imminent departure. If he uses the pretext that party supporters want him to stay on, Muscat would move his leadership to a new level: one where he would have to increasingly succumb to the cultish devotion surrounding him.

4. He will lose the chance of moving out graciously at the right moment

Despite the scale of his victory in MEP elections and two consecutive victories against two different PN leaders, Muscat has so far only served six years as PM. This means that he is not even near the closure of the 10-year cycle in office.

Both Labour in the 1980s and the PN in the 1990s started declining after completing this cycle. The disastrous state of the Nationalist opposition may tempt him to linger on to add Adrian Delia’s scalp in his trophy cabinet, next to that of Lawrence Gonzi and Simon Busuttil.

Labour’s scale of victory could well be obscuring signs of disenchantment in the electorate not yet on the surface due to the lack of political alternatives. One may also argue that the best time for a party in government to elect a new leader is in the serenity offered by a large electoral margin and a distant general election. After 2022 the PL may well be facing a different ball game, one which would require a new leader boosted by an electoral mandate.

5. Labour must debate its future. Muscat may be an obstacle to this debate

After the next election, Labour will probably need a leader who can address the undesirable consequences of Muscat’s economic model. Muscat will be leaving a toxic inheritance of environmental and social problems coupled and the complete lack of moral leadership in addressing the corruption issue. To address these problems Labour may well need a less “pro-business” leader than Muscat or one less compromised by Muscat’s political alliances to clean up the Augean stables.

But Muscat’s towering presence inside the party he has led for the past 11 years may stand in the way of a debate on Labour’s future direction. While none of the aspirants for leadership are questioning Muscat’s neoliberal drift, some of them may lack the intellectual depth to address these issues. Still, the race may at least trigger some introspection on Labour’s direction.

One may well ask: why change direction when the Muscat model has worked so well in electoral terms? Yet this discussion could also anticipate future challenges by addressing rising concerns on land use, inequalities and precarious jobs. If these problems are swept under the carpet, Labour may well face the same identity problems, which plagued the PN since 2003.

6. The next leader must have an electoral mandate

Muscat may still honour his commitment to serve 10 years by winning the next election and resigning a year after, the same way as as Eddie Fenech Adami did in 2004. In so doing Muscat would avoid a divisive leadership battle before the next general election.

Yet by stepping down before the next election, Muscat would ensure that the next Labour leader would be elected Prime Minister by an electoral mandate, avoiding a scenario in which Malta’s new prime minister would have been promoted through an internal party decision.

Leaders elected in this way, namely Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Lawrence Gonzi struggled with the perception that they were not the choice of the electorate.

Appointed two years after the controversial 1981 election, KMB failed his first electoral test in 1987 only to linger on till as party leader till 1992. Gonzi, elected in 2004, scraped through the 2008 election by a wafer-thin majority before the party imploded in subsequent years.

Even internationally Gordon Brown found it very hard to assert his authority as Tony Blair’s successor after he was crowned leader following an election won by Blair. Brown was tempted to cement his leadership by calling an early election months after replacing Blair. His failure to do so sealed his fate.

So instead of departing after the election of the new party leader, Muscat may choose to continue serving his term as Prime Minister, giving the new Labour leader time to settle down as party leader before seeking a popular mandate to become a PM in their own right, as Angela Merkel has done by staying on as Chancellor after Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer became the new leader of the CDU.

The only risk in this scenario would be that the new party leader would be initially overshadowed by Muscat’s presence. Still, the new leader is more likely to be eclipsed by Muscat if he or she lands in office deprived of an electoral mandate and spends four years in office with a diminished stature. Such a prospect may actually accelerate Labour’s probable decline in its third term in office.