Angry calls for resignations have dominated countless protests over the last couple of weeks, but as Joseph Muscat prepares to step down as Prime Minister in a couple of weeks, Malta’s attention is shifting towards his potential successors.
Now that there are officially two people who have thrown their hat in the ring and could end up being the new Leader of the Labour Party and Malta’s next Prime Minister, all eyes have turned to Chris Fearne and Robert Abela.
But who exactly is Robert Abela, and what has led to this point for the young lawyer from Qormi?
A lawyer by profession, Robert is the son of George Abela, Malta’s President between 2009 and 2014. A major protagonist within the Labour Party since the early 1990s, George Abela had contested the previous Labour leadership against a then-young and upcoming Joseph Muscat before serving as president.
Robert has one sister, Maria Abela Manconi, a soprano who’s performed alongside big names like Joseph Calleja in numerous recitals before.
Still relatively young, Abela turned 44 last weekend, on Saturday 7th December… the same day he announced he’d be running for Labour Party’s next leader.
Robert Abela is married to Lydia Abela, a fellow lawyer and Labour’s executive secretary, and is the proud father of seven-year-old Giorgia Mae, who features in multiple posts by both Robert and Lydia.
In Malta’s last general election of 2017, Robert Abela was one of the Labour Party’s fresh faces elected to parliament, making it to an MP at the age of 40.
It was his first time contesting for the sixth district, which includes the behemoths Siġġiewi, Luqa and Qormi… but it was by far not the first time that he was mentioned within the political sphere.
Back in 2014, a 36-year-old Robert Abela was seen as a “star candidate” to fill the 18,000-strong vote-void that Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca had left when she became president.
Praised for appealing to voters with no political ties, Abela was seen as the perfect candidate to replace Coleiro Preca and attract all her votes in the sixth district. On that occasion, however, he chose his legal profession over politics, favouring the numerous legal contacts and contracts that he had managed to secure for himself by then.
By the first couple of weeks of 2017, however, Robert Abela started making headlines again.
On 25th January of that year, then-candidate Robert Abela had fronted a Labour Party accusation lodged at businessman Nazzareno Vassallo over a piece of land in his hometown Qormi that he alleged was seriously undervalued during the previous PN administration. An infamous and large plot, the land was the former site of a Lowenbrau factory. The land, Abela had argued, was valued at €8 million, but was somehow sold for less than a million.
“It is not true that Vassallo paid €8 million,” Abela had said in a press conference alongside Justice Minister Owen Bonnici. “He is saying this in public but this is not the truth. This is another lie. He paid around €900,000 in cash and then absorbed Lowenbrau’s debts up to a maximum of 7.1 million.”
This particular saga continued to make headlines up to this very summer, when Jason Azzopardi – who was a parliamentary secretary responsible for government property back in 2017 – ended up losing a libel appeal against Minister Bonnici over that fateful press conference in January 2017.
After the general election of 3rd June 2017, Robert Abela was elected to Parliament from the sixth district with 3,403 first-count votes.
When Joseph Muscat had announced his new Cabinet following the election, Robert Abela was appointed the Prime Minister’s personal legal consultant, a voluntary position that was unpaid.
This role – which allowed him to attend Cabinet meetings – saw Abela follow in his father’s footsteps; George Abela had served as legal consultant in the short-lived, two-year administration of Alfred Sant between 1996 and 1998.
A couple of weeks after the election, it was alleged that Robert Abela was actually offered a parliamentary secretary job by Prime Minister Muscat, a role he had turned down “for reasons unknown”.
“My conversations with the Prime Minister will remain between us,” Abela had said in reply, refusing to confirm or deny the report.
But amidst Robert Abela’s other legal clients was Neville Gafà, a notorious Castille official and self-confessed “good friend” of former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri.
Towards the end of 2018, Gafà’s name was thrust into the spotlight following a controversial trip to Libya which saw him, according to official communications from Tripoli, meeting with government ministers in his capacity of “special envoy of the Prime Minister”. When contacted, he had insisted he travelled to the Libyan capital on a “personal visit”… going on to say he was only spotted with Haithem Tajouri, the notorious leader of militia group Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, because he had “bumped into him on the street”.
Nearly exactly one year ago today, Health Minister Fearne had fired Gafà from a senior manager position at Foundation for Medical Services (FMS). Back then, it was rumoured that Gafà had been fired for not backing Fearne’s Labour Party leadership aspirations, although no true credibility was given to these allegations.
Months later, Gafà was accused of claiming hundreds of hours of overtime payments amounting to over €6,500 that the FMS wanted back. As a reply, Gafà’s lawyer had presented a letter stating that Gafà owed absolutely no money to the FMS. Robert was that lawyer.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, and Gafà, an OPM co-ordinator, has been spotted at the home of the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, who is facing serious allegations over his involvement with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Questions are now being raised as to whether Gafà is passing on messages between Schembri and Castille.
Fast forward to November 2019, when shit really hit the fan…
By the end of the year, shocking revelations into the assassination investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia were being unveiled on a daily basis, with some of them implicating key governmental figures.
One such figures was Keith Schembri, the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, who the assassination’s suspected mastermind Yorgen Fenech implicated as having been complicit to it all.
Days after Schembri resigned, Robert Abela reportedly had some scathing remarks to say in his absence.
During a notoriously long, late-night Cabinet meeting that ran on for about six hours, Robert Abela reportedly turned to the Prime Minister, telling him “Dak il-kurnut fottiek” (that cuckold fucked you). It was also reported that, moments later, Robert’s wife Lydia received a phone call by Keith Schembri, who told her he knew what her husband had just said about him.
“I will not make a pact with the devil and sell the country”
Shortly before the first leadership bid was officially announced by Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, Robert Abela took to a fiery Facebook rant, saying he’s not ready to sell either his party or his country for “a seat”.
Warning that he would not accept compromises which would “tie his hands before I begin”, Abela continued by saying he didn’t have a “blind and rabid ambition” to have the Prime Minister’s power in his hands.
“Unity is kept through honesty and by being honourable and following the correct route,” Abela said. “Is it possible that in all this trouble we still haven’t learnt anything?”
The “deal” that was being mentioned referred to an agreement pushed by senior party exponents (with the blessing of Joseph Muscat himself) which would have instantly installed Chris Fearne as leader and have Robert Abela and Transport Minister Ian Borg share the role of Deputy Leader (and Borg being earmarked for Deputy Prime Minister). Despite this seemingly enticing offer, Abela objected because of Ian Borg’s proximity to Keith Schembri.
One day later, on his birthday, Robert Abela officially announced that he’d be running for Labour leader.
So what are Robert Abela’s chances of becoming Malta’s next Prime Minister?
By last weekend, a MaltaToday survey found that both Abela and Chris Fearne enjoyed a much larger trust rating than PN and Opposition leader Adrian Delia.
As for the two contenders, though, Chris Fearne definitely enjoyed a higher rating than Abela; the Deputy Prime Minister got a record 60.6% rating over Delia, while Abela clocked in 49.3%.
In both cases, the two potential Prime Ministers are trusted by over 90% of PL voters, with Abela being trusted by 8.6% of PN voters.
At the time of writing, a separate, Lovin Malta poll asking our readers to choose who they’d want to see being elected as the next Prime Minister has already amassed nearly 10,000 votes… with Abela currently ahead commanding a 55% of the votes.
If elected, 44-year-old Robert Abela would be one of Malta’s youngest Prime Ministers ever; Sir Ugo Mifsud was 35 when he first took up the role in 1924, and Joseph Muscat was 39.
A General Conference will be held on 6th and 7th January, with Abela and Fearne facing each other for a PL Congress vote on 11th January.