[ANALYSIS] Joseph Muscat’s three choices: No change, leave or just kick them out

The Prime Minister can boast of progress in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation but the arrest of Yorgen Fenech also has political ramifications

The standing of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri within Joseph Muscat's government becomes more tenuous, now that 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech is a person of interest in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation
The standing of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri within Joseph Muscat's government becomes more tenuous, now that 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech is a person of interest in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation

Joseph Muscat gave a very nuanced answered today when asked by the media whether he will kick out Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

A pensive Prime Minister replied that it was “a consideration to be made after all the facts emerge”.

He continued: “Today, that is not a consideration I can make.”

Schembri and Mizzi had business links with Yorgen Fenech, the businessman confirmed to being a “person of interest” in the police investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Fenech was arrested today by the police after his yacht was intercepted just after leaving the Portomaso marina.

Fenech is the owner of 17 Black, the Dubai company that was listed as a target client of the Panama companies that Schembri and Mizzi set up after the 2013 election.

The pair have always resisted resigning despite the serious suspicions of corruption fuelled by their link to Fenech’s 17 Black. The Prime Minister has also stood by them, insisting that he wanted all the facts to emerge.

But in his reply today, although sticking to his mantra, Muscat appeared more nuanced. His answer has been interpreted as putting Schembri and Mizzi “on notice”.

The question is, will Muscat make that consideration tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?

The Prime Minister faces three choices: carry on without taking decisive action on Mizzi and Schembri, force them out while staying at the helm to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the murder investigation or call it a day and resign himself. MaltaToday tries to understand the implications of each of these choices.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has three choices, each with their own rami
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has three choices, each with their own rami

Carry on as if nothing has happened

Muscat has survived the entire Panama saga and even increased his majority without having to sacrifice two of his closest aides.

He may well continue to insist that “so far” nothing links the two to the murder investigation – Muscat said today that investigators have informed him that so far no politician is considered a person of interest in the murder investigation – and therefore has no reason to change his script.

Last Sunday, Muscat said that he would only kick Schembri out if he is brought under formal criminal investigation following the conclusion of a magisterial inquiry into 17 Black.

He will also rebut criticism by sticking to the line that Yorgen Fenech’s arrest is proof that he is leaving no stone unturned. Yet, Fenech’s arrest does cast a dark shadow on the link between Mizzi’s and Schembri’s Panama companies and Fenech’s Dubai-based company, all set up after Labour’s ascent to power, and only revealed to the public thanks to leaks.

Muscat now risks internal turmoil with some cabinet members reportedly already having expressed misgivings in private

Moreover, Muscat now risks internal turmoil with some cabinet members reportedly already having expressed misgivings in private.

If this dissent goes public Muscat may well lose the greatest advantage he enjoys over the Opposition – unity.

In this sense, the Opposition’s motion asking him to remove Schembri, gives Labour ministers who want Schembri out some leverage.

But Yorgen Fenech’s arrest coincides with growing unease among a segment of the party which erupted after the Qala permit, on the party’s cosy relationship with big business interests.

Kick them out while remaining at the helm

When replying to journalists this morning Muscat did not completely rule out this option by using the words: “this is not a consideration I can make today.”

This suggests that Muscat is unwilling to put himself in a corner by limiting his future actions. The Prime Minister may well be assessing how events will unfold and how the public reacts to them.

Moreover, on Tuesday he gave a clear indication that he will shoulder full responsibility for the pardon, keeping the Cabinet in which Mizzi is present out of the loop.

Still, the fact that Muscat has retained Schembri and Mizzi for three years, despite evidence on their secret companies and their association with Fenech’s 17 Black, and his decision to continue playing the waiting game, indicate that he still considers them indispensable for his government.

Muscat knows that removing the pair now is akin to an admission of guilt, before the conclusion of the inquiry on 17 Black. And by kicking them out now and not three years ago, he would be inevitably linking their names to the on-going murder investigation.

However, the cost of doing nothing may weaken Muscat’s own standing, raising questions on his own tenability as Prime Minister. For he can’t escape the reality that Yorgen Fenech’s arrest in a murder investigation has added a sinister twist to the Panama plot, making Schembri and Mizzi more toxic than ever.

Calling it a day

Muscat is already committed to resign before the next general election.  The Prime Minister also knows that his legacy will be sealed by the investigation of Caruana Galizia’s murder. Therefore, it is in his interest that the case is resolved while he is still at the helm of the Labour Party.  Moreover, calls from Repubblika and Simon Busuttil for him to resign from Prime Minister may have the effect of strengthening him internally, forcing internal critics to close ranks despite their reservations on Schembri and Mizzi.

Muscat is facing a Catch 22 situation. If he stays on as leader without kicking Mizzi and Schembri out, he risks undermining his own credibility and fuelling internal dissent and doubt among his own voters, some of which may start questioning his moral authority.

On the other hand, if he takes action and make Mizzi and Schembri resign now he risks indirectly admitting that he should have taken this step before.

But Muscat may opt for the very unlikely scenario of resigning and thus pulling down with him, Mizzi and Schembri.

Ultimately, the only way out of this quandary is for Muscat to act fast before he himself starts to suffer from collateral damage.

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