Who let the dogs out?

One of the greatest ironies of present-day Maltese politics is that, although it is the viability of Adrian Delia’s leadership rather than Joseph Muscat’s which is openly questioned, it is Labour which is seeing its dogs vying for the leadership bone

While a weaker Delia (right) seems to have succeeded in cementing his leadership, a stronger Muscat has to reassert his role as pack leader
While a weaker Delia (right) seems to have succeeded in cementing his leadership, a stronger Muscat has to reassert his role as pack leader

Joseph Muscat’s categorical declaration on Sunday that he  would be staying on to oversee the implementation of this year’s budget may have quelled speculation on his imminent departure, but it is also clear that the race for the succession will remain open unless Muscat reneges (or qualifies) on his repeated commitment to quit before the next general election.  

This has resulted in a surreal situation where while a weaker Delia seems to have succeeded in cementing his leadership, a stronger Muscat has to reassert his role as pack leader after deliberately letting the dogs out on a rampage.

The historical irony is easily explained. It is natural that a vacancy in the Labour party’s leadership  is much more attractive than one in the PN.  So one may easily conclude that the moment Muscat had broken local protocol by setting an expiry date on his leadership term, he inevitably triggered a race bound to attract a number of interested parties.

Delia’s poisoned chalice

For while in the PN any new leader would face near certain defeat in an upcoming election and would start as an underdog in the 2027 contest, the next Labour leader is guaranteed success in 2022 but would face his or her first real test in 2027. Politicians are naturally inclined to invest in success not in failure.

This is why the attempt to remove Delia after disastrous MEP and local elections was destined to fail. Nobody was vying for a poisoned chalice. In the absence of an alternative leader capable of reuniting and reinvigorating the party councillors preferred the status quo and kept Delia in his place. Delia’s convincing victory in the general council has practically guaranteed that he will be keeping his place till the next general election.  

The risk of a downward spiral  

The problem the PN faces now is that of a downward spiral triggered by the lack of aspiration and any promise of future reward for those at the front line. 

Moreover the party’s big guns including candidates vying for the leadership after 2022 may prefer to lie low not to burn their future chances.  
The much-needed generational change may not materialise as new entrants see little prospect of career advancement in the party.  Others may stay on the sidelines waiting for a more realistic chance after the next defeat.

In many ways the PN is now at the losing end of the stick of a political system which is more managerial and presidential than ever, with prospects of political advancement being more interlinked with the party leader’s fortunes.  Ironically with more mainstream potential candidates keeping their distance, the party may be under greater pressure from the conservative core to reclaim their space in the party. This would add another twist to the already uneasy coexistence between the Delia faction and the so-called old guard.  

The fragility of the truce was once again tested by David Casa’s declaration that his support for Helena Dalli’s EU commission candidacy is conditional on her condemnation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, a condition which was not made by the party when issuing its support for Dalli’s nomination.  

Delia may use his borrowed time wisely investing in party identity and reform but even here he tends to run with the hares while chasing with the hounds sending mixed messages on issues like rent reform, development and immigration.

The green grass on Labour’s side

In contrast the grass on Labour’s side has never been greener. So it does not come as a surprise that Muscat’s intended departure before the next election has already triggered an unofficial contest involving three cabinet ministers; namely Chris Fearne Ian Borg and Konrad Mizzi and speculation on potential candidatures by MEP Miriam Dalli and MP Robert Abela.

MaltaToday has reported that Muscat had asked candidates to tone down their leadership campaigning, leading to the immediate closure last week of two Facebook groups (Mizzi’s The Konrad Effect and Borg’s Getting things done) that served as campaign platforms for Borg and Mizzi.

The candidates’ catch 22

The uncertainty created by Muscat himself on the schedule for his departure may well be creating a dilemma for those vying for his place.  If they start campaigning too late they may miss the bus and risk being over taken by others. But if they campaign too aggressively while Muscat is still at the helm they risk appearing greedy and pretentious. Moreover when setting a leadership campaign in motion, candidates also need to galvanise an army of loyal supporters, something which is bound to create division between rival teams.

Still a significant segment of Labour voters are still hoping that Muscat will have a change of heart and decide to continue leading the party in to the next election. His latest declaration that he intends to stay on after the budget may have even raised their expectations. This means that they are bound to see anyone actively campaigning to take his place in a bad light.  

Candidates actively campaigning to take Muscat’s place risk repeating the mistake committed by former PN minister John Dalli who had started his campaign while Eddie Fenech Adami was still at the PN’s helm, thus coming across as a pretender to the throne rather than a loyal successor. Muscat’s mixed signals in blowing the whistle for the race may well end up playing in the hands of a designate leader who has not even started campaigning yet.

Keeping them on their toes

While Muscat’s indecision may be a self inflicted cause of uncertainty in the party, it may well keep potential candidates on their toes, possibly being under greater pressure to deliver in their present roles.  

Yet there is also a risk that potential aspirants will be more open to temptation as they oil their electoral machine with the promise of patronage and monies from big business. The fact that it will be party members who will be making the final choice increases the risk of aggressive electioneering.

Containing the fall-out

Muscat has now made it clear that he does not intend to resign this year after the budget and will stay on to oversee the budget’s implementation, which means that if there will be a contest it won’t be happening anytime soon. Muscat may even be thinking of legacy, fully knowing that closure on the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder during his term in office, would go a long way in removing a stain on his international reputation.

It remains to be seen whether the contest in Labour will also see any introspection on the party’s identity. So far the only party grandee who has raised questions on aspects of Muscat’s pro-business development model is former party leader Alfred Sant who has repeatedly expressed his misgivings on the way big business is riding rough shod on local communities. A change of leader may also be the occasion for the party to come in terms with the dark shadows cast on it by the Panama scandal.

The greatest risk for Labour is that of repeating the PN’s mistake when changing its leader in 2004 without any substantial debate on the party’s ideological bearings. Such discussion may seem irrelevant in the present context of economic growth and electoral success but may well return to haunt Labour in the not so distant future.  

The contest may well turn out to be worthwhile if at least one candidate stands out for values and identity. The alternative to this would be a naked power struggle between rival warlords backed by respective armies of careerists.

If this happens instead of a breath of fresh air, Muscat’s positive commitment to stand down after 10 years in office may well turn out to be a mistake.