If Robert Abela keeps his word, then Malta won’t hold a general election until 2022, the official end of Labour’s current legislature. However, things are not always as they seem and it should be no surprise if the new Prime Minister decides to take the country to the polls within a year.
Here’s why we should expect Abela to do what Joseph Muscat did three years ago and call a snap election in the near future:
1. He has nothing to lose but five years to gain
Abela was the outsider during a leadership contest sparked by a political crisis that engulfed the government and forced the resignation of Joseph Muscat.
However, despite the circumstances surrounding the election, Abela’s victory doesn’t appear to have caused any significant rift within the Labour party whatsoever. PL MPs who backed Fearne (and there were several of those) have stood in line to pledge loyalty to their new leader and Fearne himself has chosen to stand by Abela’s side as deputy Prime Minister.
With the Labour Party appearing to be a united force and the Maltese economy weathering the storm of the political crisis, now would be a great time for Abela to go for a vote.
2. It would allow him to ride the wave of his honeymoon period
Public opinion is very much in favour of the new main charge, with a recent MaltaToday survey showing that Abela is trusted by 62.5% of the public, including 22.5% of people who voted for the Nationalist Party at the last election. An election is unlikely to give him the same results but the survey results will undoubtedly indicate to Abela that people from all sides of the political spectrum are responding well to his first moves as Prime Minister.
Yet the rapid downfall of Joseph Muscat will serve as a lesson to all politicians about how even the mightiest can spectacularly fall from grace, and Abela could well seize the moment and capitalise on his stratospheric popularity.
3. It would give him a clear public mandate with his own manifesto to implement
Abela may be a new Prime Minister but he is bound to implement a victorious electoral manifesto that represented the vision of Joseph Muscat, and not himself. To a certain extent, the ghost of Muscat is still running the country.
While Abela may well agree with vast chunks of this manifesto, his leadership campaign showed that he clearly has other proposals in mind that weren’t included in the manifesto, such as granting free medicine to pensioners and banning employers from hiring foreign workers unless they can ensure that all their staff are paid decent wages.
He can speak about these issues all he likes but actually implementing them will prove problematic unless they get endorsed by the public in an election.
4. It would allow him to curate a new parliamentary group and get rid of MPs who cannot be included in Cabinet
Abela has appointed several young backbenchers to his Cabinet, has stuck to his promise not to re-appoint the ever-controversial minister Konrad Mizzi and has also left out veteran MPs like Chris Cardona and Joe Mizzi.
As the Prime Minister backtracked on the appointment of Mizzi as the head of the Maltese parliamentary delegation to the OSCE, he must have realised that he cannot trust all his MPs and this mustn’t have been a comfortable feeling. An election would be the perfect opportunity for him to remove MPs he has no intention of ever appointing to the executive and replace them with people he actually wants to work with.
5. He would force the PN to fight an election before it can reform itself
A page right out of the playbook of Joseph Muscat, who had forced the PN into an election when it clearly wasn’t ready for one, so much so that it didn’t even have any billboards ready to go. The Nationalist Party was hardly in a great state before last week but the survey results threw them off the cliff.
Can you imagine if the PN had to contest an election in its current state before it even has the chance to implement proposed reforms? It will pull the rug right from under its feet, forcing them to face the public as a divided party and will, in all likelihood, leave party supporters pining for the days when Joseph Muscat used to beat them by 35,000 votes.
6. The campaign would be held before the outcome of any of the major court cases, including the public inquiry
Things may look peaceful for Abela, but the events which triggered his election in the first place are still very much in motion. Keith Schembri is formally being investigated for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia while Yorgen Fenech, who has also been charged, is still seeking a presidential pardon in return for coming clean about all he knows regarding the murder. With details about Fenech’s intimacy with top public figures trickling out into the press, Abela will know that this case could well be another political time bomb.
Meanwhile, the public inquiry investigating the circumstances of Caruana Galizia’s assassination is being given confidential information by key figures, including the heads of the Malta Security Services and the FIAU and former FIAU head Manfred Galdes, who was long suspected to have resigned out of frustration at inaction on his reports implicating Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in corruption.
Court cases in Malta tend to drag out ad aeternum but the pubic inquiry has been given nine months to complete its hearings, after which it will draft a final report.
It’s hard to predict what will happen here but Abela has a choice to make – whether to get hit by the potential political fallout towards the middle or the end of his first legislature or whether to weather the storm at the start of his second one. In terms of political strategy, it’s a no-brainer.
7. He has a golden chance to make history and gain instant hero status
Joseph Muscat was well near venerated for transforming the Labour Party from a party which couldn’t enter government for almost 25 years into an electoral force of nature that can’t stop winning.
However, if the surveys are correct, Abela can actually go a step further and win with an even wider margin, which would put him a level above Muscat in the hearts and minds of his supporters. This is a chance for Abela to truly step out of his predecessor’s shadow, stop portraying himself as the follow-up act to Muscat and start portraying himself as a great politician in his own right with an even greater mandate than the man he replaced.
If historic electoral greatness is what Abela craves, it’s there for the taking. He just has to reach out and grab it.