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Why Robert Abela Will Want To Call A Snap Election… And Why He Won’t

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Will he, won’t he? Maltese political analysts have been abuzz with speculation that Robert Abela could soon announce a snap election.

The Prime Minister has breathed new life into these rumours simply by refusing to dispel them. Four months ago, he said straight out that the legislature will last until June 2022 but now he’s keeping it vague and stating it will be called when the “national interest” dictates, which is politico-talk for ‘when it’s in my best interests’.

So which will it be?

On the face of it, there are many reasons the Prime Minister should not call a snap election.

First of all, he has just launched a Budget which is expected to herald the start of the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery, but its implementation will be delayed at best if Parliament is dissolved in the coming days.

Sticking to 2022 will also give several retail businesses some well-needed breathing space after almost two years of the pandemic. Lobby groups have already sounded a warning that holding an election before the Christmas period could disrupt the general public’s mindset during what is traditionally the busiest time of the year.

On a political note, the Prime Minister will also want to build his own team in the next legislature, drawing a clear demarcation line between himself and his predecessor Joseph Muscat.

Abela has already shown this desire for inter-renewal by co-opting the likes of Clyde Caruana, Miriam Dalli, Oliver Scicluna and Jonathan Attard into his Cabinet and parliamentary group, and several new PL candidates regularly feature on ONE TV.

However, if a snap election takes place, the newer politicians may not have enough time to connect with their constituents; consequently, the older faces will be re-elected and Abela will be stuck with the same team for five years.

Some of his advisors might be looking at recent opinion polls and telling the Prime Minister to strike while the iron is hot and the gap between PL and PN is so wide. However, the PN has reacted to this trust gap by revealing parts of its election manifesto early in its bid to be viewed as an alternative government.

If the PN keeps this up but Abela refuses to take the bait, the Prime Minister could end up in the enviable situation of unveiling the PL’s manifesto with full knowledge of the PN’s proposals, which by then would have already old news. As it stands, the PN is in serious risk of running out of steam early.

On a more personal level, Abela will also be conscious of the fact that by calling a snap election, he will not only break his word but prove that the Opposition had accurate inside information when it predicted it.

Finally, the government is extremely close to becoming the first PL administration to complete a legislature in decades, giving Abela a chance to feature positively in the history books. All he needs to do is wait a few more months. 

And yet the rumours have persisted, which means that Abela may be wondering whether a snap election could actually benefit him.

The PL is leading the PN by far in opinion polls

The PL is leading the PN by far in opinion polls

If that’s the case, it means he believes the present electoral situation will be better for him than it will be next year. And with a recent MaltaToday survey confirming the economy as the number one issue among the general public by far, this will indicate that Abela may harbour some concerns about the near future of the economy.

The government has been bullish about the future of the economy after it was hit by a double wave of COVID-19 restrictions and greylisting. We’ve been told they are nothing but temporary shocks to the system which the economy is resilient enough to overcome without the government having to make life more uncomfortable for people through austerity measures.

If the deficit needs to increase to prevent this discomfort, then so be it.

In fact, the 2022 Budget seems like a continuation of the PL’s ‘Muscatonomics’ strategy in recent yeas of improving people’s disposable income at the cost of less direct government revenue, with the idea being that this income will be reinvested in the economy anyway. 

A quick glance at the Budget and one may be forgiven for wondering whether the pandemic and greylisting were just two very bad dreams.

Of course they weren’t though and as time goes by, the clearer it is becoming that Malta will someday have to count the cost of these two storms. 

During a recent tourism conference, a leading restaurateur warned that while wage supplements will end for good in January, the industry still doesn’t know when life will return to a state of pre-COVID-19 normality.

The government also expects a surge in energy and fuel prices as a result of global supply chain promises and has promised to cushion the surge of energy prices, even at the cost of a higher deficit. 

Meanwhile, an EY report among 110 investors has highlighted just how much greylisting has harmed Malta’s attractiveness to investment.

Only 37% of surveyed investors view Malta as an attractive jurisdiction, down significantly from last year’s 62%, while 15% of investors believe their long-term future lies elsewhere, up from 8% last year.

The Prime Minister isn’t going to voice this skepticism himself (and he shouldn’t as it will only make people even more concerned) but rest assured that these concerns are as much on the front of his mind as they are on the minds of that restaurateur or of those 110 investors.

Unfortunately for Abela, where both the pandemic and greylisting are concerned, Malta’s fate is completely reliant on international developments.

Until the global economy recovers from restrictions imposed by governments during the pandemic, tourism to Malta will probably not return to pre-2020 levels.

And until the countries in the FATF decide otherwise, Malta will remain an unattractive jurisdiction to do business in.

With all these clouds gathering over the horizon, it is understandable that Abela might be tempted to get the election over and done with and enter the new year with a new five-year mandate, complete with a new team.

After all, with sensitive issues that will determine the future of the nation on his plate, Abela could be viewing an election as a mere distraction.

In this scenario, the PL could use the 2022 Budget as the basis of its manifesto – “vote us in and get a measured, costed plan that won’t see a single tax increase and which is at once both ambitious and realistic”.

If the surveys are correct, Abela could win by a huger landslide than Muscat ever did, which would not only give him a huge mandate but psychologically allow him to leave his predecessor’s shadow for good.

And if tough decisions have to be taken, it’s always politically better to take them at the start of a legislature than at the end of one, especially if you expect the Opposition to focus its energy on another post-election thrashing soul-searching exercise and leadership campaign.

A victory for PL is all but guaranteed at this stage but Abela has the luxury of deciding how he wants to triumph. Does he want to keep his word, prove the PN wrong and become the Prime Minister who saw the party through a full legislature or does he want to get the election out of the way and face the coming challenges with a clean slate and a clean cabinet?

Really, it’s no wonder he hasn’t made his mind up yet.

When do you think an election will be held?

READ NEXT: Malta’s Government Does Not Care About Sexual Health, Here’s Why

Tim is interested in the rapid evolution of human society brought about by technological advances. He’s passionate about justice, human rights and cutting-edge political debates. You can follow him on Twitter at @timdiacono or reach out to him at [email protected]

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