[ANALYSIS] Labour contest: Will it be the dark horse or the co-pilot?

James Debono makes five reflections on a Labour leadership contest with one certain outcome: Joseph Muscat’s glorious departure from the party’s leadership

Health Minister Chris Fearne (left), outgoing Prime Minister Joesph Muscat (right) and Labour MP Robert Abela (right)
Health Minister Chris Fearne (left), outgoing Prime Minister Joesph Muscat (right) and Labour MP Robert Abela (right)

Warts and all, Chris Fearne may well be the best choice as Malta’s next Prime Minister but Robert Abela could still topple his apple cart in a dull contest, which only took off in the final week after the festive season.

1. Internally Joseph Muscat did get his dignified exit

This election was triggered by Joseph Muscat’s resignation, amidst testimonies implicating his chief of staff in possible obstruction of justice or worse. Muscat also faces pertinent question on his own relationship with alleged mastermind Yorgen Fenech which was close enough to him to merit an invitation to a private party at Girgenti Palace, with the PM hinting that not inviting him would have alerted Fenech of the investigation.

He also faces pertinent questions on his knowledge of Schembri’s intimate relationship with Fenech, the acceptance of the gifts he received from Fenech and the anomalous 50-hour trip to Dubai during the holidays. Despite this elephant in the room, both candidates had to pander to a cohort of party members which still adores Muscat.

To win their sympathy Fearne has been describing himself as Muscat’s “co-pilot” while Abela has presented himself as the continuity candidate. By staying on as leader during the contest Muscat has managed to get what he wanted; a dignified exit guaranteed by the shower of praise received from both contenders.

But this raises questions on their future ability to handle the fallout of an investigation, which may still implicate the former leader.

Fearne came closest to distancing himself from Muscat by refusing to vouch for his innocence in an interview with LovinMalta. Abela, who promised to consult Muscat if elected, reserved his harshest words for Schembri out-rightly accusing him of lying on losing his mobile phone. But in many ways the leadership contest failed to address the very reason why it was held in the first place; Joseph Muscat’s untenable position and a series of errors of judgement, all revolving around his chief of staff.

Much depends on whether Muscat will remain in parliament and to what extent he will remain politically active. Asking for his departure from politics was a step too far for both candidates, who fully know that the former leader had the latent power to sway the race either way.

Although neither candidate fits the profile of a Muscat loyalist, they had to prove themselves to a loyalist crowd. Muscat’s enduring popularity despite his dramatic fall from grace remains something any future Labour leader will have to contend with.

His final address to party members on the eve of the vote will grant Muscat the exit he expects by right.

Leadership candidate Chris Fearne
Leadership candidate Chris Fearne

2. Fearne blunders whenever he tries to sound populist

Chris Fearne started the campaign promising a no-nonsense approach focusing on the need of restoring the country’s reputation and the breakdown in trust in its institutions.

But as the campaign unfolded and Abela’s charisma started leaving its mark, Fearne felt a strange need to prove himself as a tribal warlord, resorting to bad taste jibes on adorning his epithet with the words RIPN.

Subsequently faced with surveys showing Abela making inroads, he tried to present his election as inevitable even by inviting Abela to his victory party, thus sounding arrogant and belittling his rival, something which may win him sympathy.

Fearne did come across as humane, cultured and mild mannered in other interviews, which may be more revealing on his true self. It remains a mystery why Fearne felt the need to resort to divisive comments; a role in which he is clearly feels uncomfortable. Abela beats Fearne hands down if the contest was all about giving the party another Joseph.

In fact his humbler style may be the very antidote to the excesses of the Muscat years.

Ian Borg dropped out of the contest and backed Chris Fearne
Ian Borg dropped out of the contest and backed Chris Fearne

3.  If Fearne does not win, it will be trouble

After Miriam Dalli and Ian Borg dropped out of the contest, Fearne was close to being appointed leader without even needing an election. By that stage he had even secured the support a large segment of the parliamentary group, including that of prominent cabinet members Ian Borg and even from the disgraced Konrad Mizzi.

Even Muscat is reported to have given his blessing to a pact, which would have seen Fearne as the sole candidate with Abela and Borg serving as his deputies. In many ways Fearne started to appear as Muscat’s Gordon Brown.

For as was the case with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while there is no love lost between the two politicians, Muscat may have accepted Fearne as his natural replacement, albeit reluctantly.

The compromises done to secure the support of the party establishment may well return to haunt Fearne once elected.

It was Abela who tipped the apple cart, triggering a contest among members.

Fearne has harped on the message that he is still the inevitable winner of the contest, giving the impression that he is not even contemplating defeat. For Fearne has been working for this moment ever since Muscat hinted his intention to depart before the next election.

If he loses his disappointment will be palpable. While there is no doubt that Fearne will accept the result, the bad blood may linger on, eroding party unity in the next years.

Leadership candidate Robert Abela
Leadership candidate Robert Abela

4. Abela has made inroads but having nothing to lose tends to shoot from the hip

Abela started the campaign with a low-key approach, appealing directly to members and avoiding the official media while focusing on the social media where he gained an edge, helped by the input of young activists.

Abela’s candidature has also been boosted by the popularity of his spouse Lydia Abela, herself a leading party official. The Abelas may well be seen as another power couple replacing the Muscats.

While initially reclusive on policy, during the past few days Abela was more forthcoming and adventurous in his policy proposals. He has also indirectly challenged two aspects of continuity with the Muscat years; the reliance on foreign workers and the competitive tax advantages for foreign companies.

His criticism of a tax system giving foreign companies like Lidl an advantage over local businesses was refreshing. He was also more categorical than Fearne on excluding ODZ development, even if his role as PA lawyer has seen him defending a number of controversial permits.

On the other hand, Fearne has been cautious not to upset the apple cart of economic growth, while focusing on addressing reputational damage, which he promises to address.

This may be a reflection of the fact that Fearne already sees himself as Prime Minister and refuses to condition himself with promises which may return to haunt him once elected.

On the other hand as the underdog Abela may feel less conditioned by these consideration and feels freer but his proposals lack a coherent narrative.

PL members will choose their new leader and Malta's next prime minister on Saturday
PL members will choose their new leader and Malta's next prime minister on Saturday

5.  Warts and all, Fearne sounds more like a future PM

Fearne may lack charisma and may have already had to compromise to secure his election. Recently he has even hinted at the reappointment of Gozo strongman Anton Refalo to the cabinet, who was removed from the cabinet by Muscat immediately after the election.

But he definitely has experience and the demeanour of a Prime Minister.

Abela looks more inspiring and daring but remains a wild card. But Fearne may be too conditioned by his own leading role in the Muscat administration to offer a fresh start or to think out of the box.

Still his reputation for integrity may well see him taking the party to new heights. For if the economy continues to perform well while he still manages to clean up Labour’s act, he may even end up increasing his party’s majority.

Yet this may in itself result in contradictions. For to keep the economy growing, Fearne himself may end up closing his eyes to abuses in the construction sector amongst others.

But the risk is that he may end up presiding over a long period of decline as the dark shadows of past corruption scandals and the Caruana Galizia assassination probe starts catching up with him forcing him to take decisions which will either leave the opposition angrier or his party divided.

If this coincides with a slowdown in economic growth he become more tempted to resort to divisive tribalism to boost his authority and he has clearly not mastered this skill.

He also risks facing the fate met by past leaders like Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Lawrence Gonzi who were over shadowed by their predecessors.

Comparisons with Muscat will be made and if the economy slows down, Fearne will be in deep trouble. That may give more reason to Fearne to shy away from the promise of change his candidature initially seemed to offer.