[ANALYSIS] Joseph Muscat: The Grinch who stole Christmas

Muscat delayed his imminent resignation by 42 days and opted for the shortest time-frame for his succession, for contenders to campaign over the holiday season in a highly polarised political landscape. Has the Grinch stolen Christmas? JAMES DEBONO asks

Muscat  knows  his decision to remain entrenched in Castille for the next month is bound to polarise the nation to levels unseen since the 1980s and the EU referendum aftermath
Muscat knows his decision to remain entrenched in Castille for the next month is bound to polarise the nation to levels unseen since the 1980s and the EU referendum aftermath

In his televised address on Sunday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he will be resigning from prime Minister after the party elects a new leader on January 12. Muscat ditched a number of other options which would have ensured an immediate resignation, giving his party more time to reflect before electing a new leader.

That first option would have seen him resigning immediately to hand the baton to deputy prime minister Chris Fearne.

In the light of the national emergency, the leadership contest would have been postponed to a later date, to ensure a serene discussion on the party’s future. Muscat may have chosen either to remain formally PL leader or taken leave of absence to let Fearne temporarily fill the post.

The party statute already foresees the eventuality of the deputy leader for parliamentary affairs assuming the duties and responsibilities of the leader “when he is not in a position to carry out his/her duties.”

These scenarios, which would have seen Fearne assuming the functions of Prime Minister had one major drawback: the fact that Fearne himself is considered an aspirant for the succession.

Fearne already has a democratic mandate, both as deputy Prime Minister and deputy party leader, which makes him the natural replacement to Muscat in the case of an emergency when Muscat is unable to carry out his duties. Truly said, the ongoing investigations related to the assassination of Caruana Galizia, amounts to an impendent on the PM to exercise his functions.

There was also another option: that of resigning and leaving it up to the President to find a replacement with enough support in parliament where Labour has a strong majority to preside over the next government.

A party veteran with no leadership ambitions of his own may well have stepped in until the party serenely chooses its next leader. In so doing the President would have acted within his full constitutional powers. Vella also carries strong moral authority, which Labour MPs would have been bound to respect.

But these options left one issue unresolved: that of who will eventually replace Muscat as party leader. But that consideration should have been a secondary one.

With three years to the next election the party could have waited some time before electing a new leader.

On the other hand, the country cannot wait for the PM to leave and remove the shadow cast by his chief of staff’s association with the alleged murderer of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Muscat’s awkward exit

Instead Muscat has opted for the most awkward and incendiary solution possible: a period of incumbency stretching over a 42-day period paralleled by an internal election held right through the Christmas festivities.

The downside of this is that by staying on Muscat has cast a shadow on the investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination probe.

His resignation was inevitable in view of the friendship and business connections between his former chief of staff Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech, the Tumas magnate accused of being the mastermind of the assassination. But as long as he retains power, people will inevitably ask: is he doing so to protect Keith Schembri or even himself from being investigated?

Thus Muscat’s occupation of power in the next weeks will inevitably fuel not just conspiracy theories but legitimate concerns on the risk of justice being obstructed.

Muscat who has been so keen on congratulating the institutions for doing their work and bringing the suspects to the bar, now risks delegitimising their work through his persistent presence.

The Grinch who stole Christmas

Muscat also knows that his decision to remain entrenched in Castille for the next month is bound to polarise the nation to levels unseen since the 1980s and the EU referendum aftermath.

Ironically, Muscat, who initially built on the best tradition of Mintoff and Sant, has now relapsed to their worst antics.

The increased polarisation is bound to condition debate in the Labour party itself. The man who credited himself for bringing an era of serenity now risks ushering an era of confrontation which may well put his successor in a difficult position especially in reaching out to that segment of the population, which now feels angry and betrayed.

The other downside is that the option chosen by Muscat denies the Labour Party the comfort of choosing its next leader in a more serene environment.

Instead the party will be choosing its leader in an increasingly polarised environment, which is bound to ruin Christmas serenity.

Not only will contestants campaign during the festivities, in itself an incentive for splashing out in parties, but Muscat’s persistent presence may well condition their approach to the campaign.

They will be unable to question Muscat’s political choices, fully knowing that turning against a popular former leader diminishes their chance of being elected.

A safe distance between Muscat’s resignation from Prime Minister and the leadership contest would have guaranteed greater freedom for candidates to question Muscat’s legacy and failures.

Instead they have been reduced to singing his praises in the hope that he would not be using his power of incumbency against them.

They will be prevented from clearly spelling out how much they intend to distance themselves from Muscat’s brand of politics.

Possibly a longer period of reflection would have widened the discussion to an assessment of the party’s ideological choices and its relationship with big business interests.

The party could itself have led by example by introducing campaign rules, to limit the spending of candidates and to ban donations from big business to any leadership aspirant, especially in view that party members will be voting for the leader for the first time in the party’s history.