Any Prime Minister facing the prospect of the EU invoking Article 7 over concerns on the rule of law, and subjected to the scrutiny of an MEP delegation which left Malta even more concerned than it was before arriving ,would be in serious trouble. Malta narrowly avoided being labelled as a tax haven during a stalemate vote at the European Parliament last Wednesday. Yet Prime Minister Joseph Muscat retains his popularity as confirmed by every opinion poll held in the past few months. Why?
The country is experiencing electoral fatigue after an intensive year of corruption scandals followed by a surreal election that saw Muscat confirm his majority of 35,000. Despite concerns on the abuse of the power of incumbency, the result showed unprecedented popular support for an incumbent Prime Minister. Voters may not be in the mood for further political turmoil.
Muscat played a calculated gamble by seeking electoral closure to pending criminal magisterial inquiries. While elections do not absolve governments from judicial investigations, the elections have boosted Muscat and thrown the Opposition into chaos. People tend to defend their choices; voters hate to think they were wrong and will always find reasons to prove themselves right. It happened before in Italy where Berlusconi survived all kinds of inquiries and investigations without losing popular support.
The country’s economy is booming. It may not be sustainable, being too dependent on the construction industry and the financial and gaming sectors. Wealth may not be trickling down sufficiently to the most vulnerable, but the feel-good factor works to the government’s advantage. Those losing out because of soaring rents are at the lower end of the labour market. They are either foreigners, or working class Maltese who are more inclined to support the Labour Party. These voters are more loyal to their Party than Nationalist ters are to theirs. Eurostat statistics have shown that social and material deprivation in Malta dropped by more than half in two years, although one in 10 remain unable to afford basic resources. This may indicate that the negative impact of soaring rents is being offset by other measures and policies.
Politically, Muscat still plays his cards well. He may be criticised for keeping his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and his ‘star’ Minister Konrad Mizzi and for not removing an incompetent Police Commissioner and a questionable Attorney General, but he still manages to portray himself as a politician who delivers. After promising to leave no stone unturned to find the assassins of Daphne Caruana Galizia, he made sure he was the one to announce the arrest of suspects in the murder. A failure to bring those who commissioned the murder to justice will now backfire on him.
An army on social media
He manages to sound moderate and rational, leaving it to an army of sycophants and henchmen on social media to do the dirty work of denigrating opponents. Meanwhile, the Labour Party media depicts legitimate critics as extremists.
Thriving from controversy
Muscat manages to turn indignation against his policies and decisions to his favour. Seen in the context of radical measures like the partial privatisation of energy and health care, the transformation of citizenship into a commodity, the cheap sale of natural and historic assets to private interests and the absolution of a minister and a chief of staff mentioned in the Panama Papers, Muscat is more of an extremist than a moderate. Does Muscat thrive in the indignation created by his actions? And is he helped by extreme comparisons made by some of his critics, which while grounded in a decline of ethical standards are not felt in everyday life? Could it be that Muscat thrives in the indignation created by his actions? The question critics must ask themselves is: How can they express legitimate indignation without sounding self-righteous?
Good governance and the rule of law is not everyone’s priority especially in a country where political patronage was also the norm under previous administrations. People are more likely to grumble about traffic and environmental degradation which affect them directly than about things that may irk their conscience, but not enough to make them renounce their political allegiance.
Widening the circle of ‘friends’
Unlike previous PN administrations which were perceived as changing the goalposts to accommodate the very few, Muscat has changed the goalposts for a greater number of beneficiaries, mostly at the cost of sound planning and the common good. The list is endless. Why should those who have become instantly rich thanks to changes in policy goalposts renounce their allegiance? Added to these are those who have benefitted from rights, benefits and liberties-like gay marriage, the liberalisation of drug laws and free child care-all unimaginable up to five years ago.
A weak Opposition
The PN has lost the edge it had in the 1990s when it was seen even by critics as the party with a vision for the future. As long as Muscat is more trusted to ensure future prosperity he will probably remain ahead. The question is: will the international concern on his good governance record start taking its toll on his government’s performance and the country’s economy? Will the chickens come home to roost or will Muscat simply take this as another opportunity to portray opponents as unpatriotic?
MPs who put themselves first
Muscat has faced no dissent in his own Party. The first warning sign for a regime are internal cracks. Perhaps reaching out to those who will not renounce tribal loyalties but who are concerned by widespread corruption and environmental degradation should be the first step for a mature civil society movement which reaches out to the Labour inclined segment of the population.
Lack of alternative
Muscat understands the Maltese electorate. At times he may be overreaching by his overbearing presence. He has lost his sheen and more people see him for what he is: goal oriented, but also crafty and manipulative. Taking him down will take someone who equally understands the electorate but, importantly, someone who also represents aspirations for social justice, environmental protection and good governance. So far the current PN leadership has not offered this alternative.