We are now officially in the final year of the Labour government’s second consecutive term.
Four years have passed since the last election was held on 3 June, 2017, and Robert Abela is now considering his options to choose the best possible date.
The 2017 election was held earlier than scheduled, a full year before it was due. The Labour government, then with Joseph Muscat as Prime Minister, was at the time facing the outbreak of the Panama Papers scandal. Muscat, to defend his own interests, had chosen to call an early election before matters spiralled out of control. It proved to be a wise decision that favoured the party in power, given that Labour won the election handsomely, and considering what took place afterwards.
Muscat’s successor, Robert Abela, has different circumstances to contend with as he prepares to make the call. The next election must be held by August 2022, at the latest, but it does not look likely that Abela will wait that long. In all probability, the election will be held some time between October and May. He would like to keep the Opposition guessing until the very last moment, to take all the advantage possible and use the power of incumbency to attract as many voters to his party as possible. But the government, as a whole, and individual ministers already seem in election mode.
The last four years
So much has happened since the 2017 election.
In the last campaign, the Nationalist Opposition had then gone through great pains to highlight the high levels of corruption that had permeated into the top levels of the government. Its desperate calls had gone unheeded, as Muscat had convinced the electorate that he was still the better option when compared to Simon Busuttil.
In spite of all the allegations that were being levelled at Muscat and the people around him, the PL still managed to win with an even greater majority than that of 2013. The voters gave more weight to the economic success achieved by the government than the corrupt practices that were, until then, very apparent but strongly denied by the alleged perpetrators.
But, since 2017, what the PN had been speaking about – and which had been ignored by the electorate – has come to the surface. The police, with a new chief at the helm, finally investigated what needed to be investigated, and their work is bearing the first fruit, as a number of prominent people have recently been charged with illicit behaviour.
The arrest of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri and his arraignment together with that of a number of associates could be just the tip of the iceberg. It is known that the police are looking into other situations that could bring others before the courts. Such complicated webs are difficult to investigate and more difficult to prove in a court of law, but at least now we know that the police are not twiddling their thumbs.
The details that are emerging in court almost on a daily basis expose the depth of the intricacies, and we are only at the beginning of the proceedings. It could take many months, if not years, for conclusions to be reached. With all the judicial steps that are being taken, and probably appeals that will follow initial judgments, it is hard to imagine when all this will be a closed chapter.
The heinous murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on 16 October, 2017, rocked the nation to the core. It was an attack on the person as well as an attack on free society and free journalism. Daphne had been in the forefront in the fight against corruption, and much of what she wrote about before her assassination is now coming to light in the law courts.
What followed after the Bidnija tragedy is a wave of public protests, the emergence of a stronger civil society and, again, thanks to testimony which is being given in court in cases against her alleged killers and mastermind, the discovery of shocking details which expose the great lengths that were taken to silence her.
The political effect
On a political level, so much has changed since the last election.
The most important event, of course, is Muscat’s resignation. Before it happened, Muscat had strongly hinted that he would not be leading the PL at the coming election, but he never imagined that he would be going down in such disgrace. Muscat resigned in January 2020 after his right hand man Schembri was questioned in connection with Daphne’s assassination. He has since also abandoned his parliamentary seat. Any plan for him to take up a position within the European Union structures had to be forgotten.
Under Muscat’s leadership, the country flourished in economic terms. More than anyone else, Muscat understood that by keeping people happy – the panem et circenses model – would make (many of) them look away from the corrupt practices that were taking place. Freebies became the order of the day; no new taxes were introduced and people had money in their pockets, enough for them not to give too much attention to what else was taking place.
But Muscat’s legacy is, for the neutrals, the long-standing effect of his inability to control the people around him, those closest to him who ultimately contributed to his downfall. Too much was allowed to take place under his leadership. His supporters continue to claim that he was kept in the dark, but his close connections make this hard to believe.
Muscat has been replaced by Abela, who did take a leaf out of Muscat’s book in terms of the way his government does its utmost to hand out the goodies. Abela’s misfortune is that, as soon as he took over the country’s reins, the Covid-19 pandemic started, and his government has had to concentrate mostly on how to tackle the medical crisis as well as to counter the negative economic effects the virus has had on most business sectors.
Abela is still also dealing with the Muscat aftermath. The negative image that Malta has been burdened with happened as a result of all that took place under Muscat and, although there have been signs of improvement and some steps have been taken (vide police chief), confidence in Maltese institutions still lacks. Added to this, Malta is still seen with eyes of mistrust by other European nations.
The Nationalist Party has had its own years of upheaval. In 2017, Busuttil was not seen as being a better alternative to Muscat and, having succumbed to a massive defeat, he threw in the towel. At the time it was considered to be the best way forward but, with what we know today, Busuttil must be regretting his decision to quit. It’s too late to go back now.
These last four years have also seen the PN still very much in disarray and coming across as a fragmented party. The party moved from Busuttil to having Adrian Delia as party leader, but months of internal dissent ultimately led to another party leadership election, which Delia lost to Bernard Grech.
The PN is trying hard to portray itself as a valid alternative to Labour. Efforts have been made to attract new, younger politicians, and there have also been attempts for the PN to present policies and ideas that it plans to put into place if returned to power.
But many of its frontmen are veteran politicians who have been tried and tested, and have already been pushed aside. Added to this, the PN is finding it hard to be seen as credible, and regular surveys continue to show that it still lags far behind Labour in terms of popularity.
The year to come
We all know that the moment an election is approaching, the speculation about the date increases. This has often led to effects on the economy, and there have been occasions when legislatures were cut short – Eddie Fenech Adami did so in both 1992 and 1996 – so as to avoid further repercussions. Other terms ended before their time (1998 and 2017) for different reasons.
But what is sure is that when Malta enters the final year of a political term there is a slowdown. In the circumstances we are living, Malta has already experienced a sharp drop in economic terms, brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At this point in time, with the Covid-19 numbers dipping drastically and the economy starting to recover as restrictive measures are eased, the last thing this country needs is a further reduction of economic activity as a result of an approaching election.
This could possibly mean that Robert Abela would see it as being a wise move to hold an election sooner rather than later. Getting over with it would be beneficial to a country that cannot afford to lose more time as it seeks to consolidate its economy after so much distress.