[ANALYSIS] Robert Abela: Carpe diem or blissful honeymoon?

Robert Abela pandered to a constituency which loved and adored Joseph Muscat but presented himself as an outsider with the interests of the common folk at heart.

Prime Minister Robert Abela taking his oath of office on Monday
Prime Minister Robert Abela taking his oath of office on Monday

Labour MP Robert Abela did not only simply win a contest. He did so convincingly and beyond the wildest expectation despite long being perceived as an underdog.

That explains why his election also triggered a wave of emotions among his supporters already fired up by the choreographed departure of his predecessor. But understanding how he achieved his aim is crucial before assessing his potential as Prime Minister.

Robert Abela won because he followed a script in which he played the role of an insurgent pitted against a detached minister backed by the party’s establishment, while still promising continuity with his predecessor.

First, he lashed out at the “diabolical pact” which would have seen Labour’s establishment uniting behind Chris Fearne as Muscat’s automatic successor in a moment of deep crisis, with Abela and Ian Borg being appointed deputy leaders in a bid to ensure unity.

This created an impression that by turning down the offer he was standing his ground against the party establishment.

But rather than rebelling against Muscat in what would have been the logical conclusion of an anti-establishment insurgency, Abela did the very opposite. He embarked on a campaign aimed directly at the party’s grassroots, promising continuity with the Muscat years, giving the impression that he was still Joseph’s man.

In this way he could run a campaign, which promised continuity in the hands of an affable and charismatic bloke who could be trusted by the rank and file.

Abela could in this way portray himself as being both an insurgent and a guarantee of continuity, a contradiction which marked his campaign from beginning to end, leaving space for ambiguity to appeal to two different categories party of members: those who resented Keith Schembri and had some misgivings on Muscat, and those who supported Muscat unconditionally.

Moreover as George Abela’s son, he could run a continuity campaign without being seen as Muscat’s stooge. Abela, appointed president by Lawrence Gonzi in 2009, was himself a divisive figure in the Labour movement. He not only fell out with Alfred Sant in 1998 during the clash with Dom Mintoff, but stood against Muscat in 2008, presenting himself as the candidate who best represented the rupture with the Sant era while advocating a socially conservative stance on issues like divorce.

But the final nail in Fearne’s campaign was the heroic welcome reserved for Joseph Muscat last Friday
But the final nail in Fearne’s campaign was the heroic welcome reserved for Joseph Muscat last Friday

Finally in the last stage of the campaign, Abela capitalised on Fearne’s perceived entitlement for the succession, which confirmed his position of underdog. He also benefitted from Fearne’s blunders, including the latter’s lame attempt to galvanise the core vote through divisive jibes.

Abela only flopped once in the campaign, showing poor understanding of basic norms of good governance when stating that he found nothing wrong with his family-owned firm bidding for government contracts if he became PM. Abela was forced to retract and realise his mistake, but it is doubtful whether this episode had any impact on his popularity among party members, a constituency which remained loyal to Muscat despite constant criticism on his good governance credentials.

Chronicles of a doomed campaign

Fearne’s campaign followed a completely different playbook, first securing the support of the party’s establishment in a moment of deep crisis to try and restore a semblance of normality to the country and secondly by attempting to secure a sole unifying candidature.

Fearne stood out as the sober politician who could restore the country’s reputation through clinical intervention. In itself, Fearne’s bid was shaped by a realisation of the gravity of the situation facing the country, which Abela downplayed through his campaign.

Ironically, while Muscat is reported to have given his blessing to the so-called “diabolical pact” denounced by Abela in his firing shot for his candidature, facilitating the endorsement of Fearne by ministers loyal to Muscat, Abela’s candidature effectively made it possible for Muscat to prolong his stay in office till after the election of a new leader.

The leadership race that ensued meant that neither Fearne nor Abela could distance themselves from the sitting leader, most disastrously for the heir apparent Fearne: Muscat conditioned the campaign right up to the eve of the vote, with an emotional farewell speech which evoked comparisons between the two candidates contending for the succession.

Chris Fearne started the campaign perceived as the candidate backed by the party establishment
Chris Fearne started the campaign perceived as the candidate backed by the party establishment

In this way, Fearne started the campaign being perceived as the candidate backed by the party establishment who had tried to avoid an election among members, something, which may well have rubbed party members the wrong way.

Initially underestimating Abela, Fearne spoke to the nation through proposals focused on good governance and a “no nonsense” approach to government, going as far as promising to revamp Muscat’s cherished passport scheme and committing himself to appointing the police commissioner with a two-thirds majority, proposals which represented real change but which may have not gone well with Muscat loyalists.

It was only in reaction to Abela’s campaign that Fearne tried to appeal to the grassroots. To do so he resorted to drastic but empty slogans, like his distasteful jibe on having an ‘RIPN’ epithet on his grave. In panic mode Fearne pressed all the wrong buttons, even sounding arrogant by inviting Abela to an already booked celebration party, something which further alienated party members. Ironically it was a defeated Fearne who ended up not attending Abela’s inaugural speech as party leader.

But the final nail in Fearne’s campaign was the heroic welcome reserved for Joseph Muscat last Friday, which evoked the contrast between Fearne’s austere and sombre style, and the persistent appeal of Muscat’s charisma coupled with the deification of his family. Ultimately this set the mood for the vote, which saw Abela winning convincingly.

In short, while Fearne was busy securing an exit from the national crisis from above, taking party members for granted and exposing himself to the creeping perception of having made compromises to get the support of ministers to get there, Abela was busy on the ground securing the consent of party members.

Thus Fearne’s approach did not translate in a grassroot campaign for change and largely assumed that party members would simply follow the instructions of his very reluctant supporters in the Cabinet, some of which may well have been hedging their bets and were not so emotionally invested in Fearne’s candidature.

Moreover, the awkward and unsolicited support of Konrad Mizzi weakened Fearne’s appeal as the reformist candidate.   

On the other hand Abela did mobilise a bottom-up campaign, albeit one promising continuity and which downplayed the scale of the crisis facing the country.

But the question remains: Was Abela simply following the rulebook to secure power, ultimately gaining a free hand unrestrained by compromise, to implement the required changes once elected; or will his approach to the campaign now condition him and prevent him from taking any significant action against the Panama gang?

Words and actions

Abela’s inaugural speech does provide some clues on future directions. But his actions seem to speak louder. While his speeches indicate continuity, the major cabinet reshuffle indicates significant changes.

Once again Abela downplayed the situation in the country describing it as "sensitive but not tragic".

Ideologically there were evident signs of continuity with Abela endorsing “trickledown” economics, helping businesses to “make more profits, invest and succeed” but asking them not to “forget workers”. Rather than a more socialist direction, this sounded more like an appeal to the goodwill of employers.

Like Muscat before him, he also lashed against the politics of “envy” against those who “succeed”, in what appears as a jibe against anti-business sentiment on the left of Labour.

His appeal for “self-discipline” is welcome in view of the laissez-faire mentality which has taken deep root in various sectors, but it falls short of a clear commitment to address the moral crisis facing the country.

Neither did Abela address the need for institutional reforms or address the reason which ultimately led to Muscat’s downfall, namely the assassination of Caruana Galizia and the links between Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri.

Labour supporters may be asking: doesn’t the newly elected leader deserve a honeymoon period of grace and goodwill? While any fair assessment of his performance in the new role has to be based on his action over a few months, the urgent task of safeguarding the country’s reputation requires urgent action.
Labour supporters may be asking: doesn’t the newly elected leader deserve a honeymoon period of grace and goodwill? While any fair assessment of his performance in the new role has to be based on his action over a few months, the urgent task of safeguarding the country’s reputation requires urgent action.

Abela’s upbeat televised address to the nation on Monday night following his swearing-in was even more of a slap to the face of those expecting him to deliver change. For Abela made no single reference to the elephant in the room which led to Muscat’s resignation. Instead he spoke about economic growth and prosperity.

Abela’s first appointment of JobPlus boss and economist Clyde Caruana as chief of staff also suggests continuity with Muscat’s labour market and economic policies and contrasts with Abela’s pitch on foreign workers being a threat to Maltese workers’ wages during the campaign.

The appointment is also an indication that the role of chief of staff will be more tied to policymaking rather than dubious business connections, as was the case with Keith Schembri under Muscat. From this angle Caruana’s appointment was a breath of fresh air.

The resignation of Keith Schembri’s ally Neville Gafa from the Office of the Prime Minister was also a positive sign of discontinuity, allaying fears that he would be retained after backing his candidature and even attending Abela’s swearing in ceremony.

More significantly the cabinet changes indicate a change in perspective and that greater priority will be given to previously neglected sectors like the environment and housing.

What honeymoon?

Labour supporters may be asking: doesn’t the newly elected leader deserve a honeymoon period of grace and goodwill? While any fair assessment of his performance in the new role has to be based on his action over a few months, the urgent task of safeguarding the country’s reputation requires urgent action.

While party activists may feel entitled to enjoy a moment of celebration, non-partisans will expect decisive signs from the new government that nobody is above the law. They will ask: Will the police and the institutions have the full power to investigate matters which may cast a dark shadow on the legacy of his predecessor or implicate his closest associates?

Abela’s greatest advantage is that after being invested with moral authority by party members he has the strength to bring closure to this sad chapter in the country’s history.

But the temptation to overlook problems in the name of party unity, may be too great to resist for a candidate who had no qualms taking a ride on the crest of Muscat’s wave to win power. Much depends on whether support from the Muscat camp has come at a price.

More in National