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The other party crisis

The meaning of every crisis borrows from others looming in the wings. Right now the attention is quite properly on the existential crisis of the Nationalist Party. But the issue of the PN’s leadership needs to be considered alongside another crisis – that linked to the leadership succession in the Labour Party. The MEP elections in May will be a flashpoint for Labour as much as for the PN.

Joseph Muscat has promised not to contest the next general election. That doesn’t mean he won’t. But it does mean that the pressure is growing within Labour for him to make a definitive choice, while the leadership hopefuls jockey for position in the background.

Not all crises are the same. A crisis is a critical crossroads. The crisis of a succession is different from that of an implosion or sacking. But all choices at crossroads can be tricky.

A leadership succession involves choices about identity and personnel. Identity concerns self-definition. How much continuity to maintain? How much of a break with the present?

Personnel choices regard more than the leaders. There are staffers and favoured backers as well. Any personnel choice will have losers and winners. The wounds inflicted in such choices can run deep, as we know from the aftermath of the PN succession from Eddie Fenech Adami to Lawrence Gonzi. Nor has Labour generally managed successions well historically.

The MEP elections in May will be a flashpoint for Labour as much as for the PN

Significant rifts followed the switch from Paul Boffa to Dominic Mintoff, from Mintoff to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, and from the latter to Alfred Sant. The only exception has been the last leadership election, which saw Joseph Muscat win. But the smoothness was arguably helped by the prospect of capturing government, which was so evidently within reach after a few months of the leadership contest.

With Joseph Muscat gone or about to go, that last dynamic changes. The task of maintaining power helps focus minds. But remember that it’s not just Labour as a party that is intent on maintaining power. It is also individuals and staffers (like, oh, Konrad Mizzi). We can therefore expect plenty of horsetrading, using the perks of today for the perks of tomorrow. The backers of wrong horses may stand to lose a lot.

The next Labour leadership election will also be an expensive one. It will be the first in which all Labour members can vote. Business backers will therefore also be important but the electorate can be less easily taken for granted than previously.

All these considerations will come to a temporary boil during the MEP elections, from the campaign itself to the absorption of the results.

First, the campaign will make more explicit than usual the difference between the Party of European Socialists (PES), under whose banner Labour candidates will be competing, and Labour.

The difference between Labour’s policies and the PES platform will be evident, if journalists do their job. Two planks are particularly salient. The PES wants to crack down on tax avoidance, a mainstay of our financial services. The PES is also championing a major transition to cleaner energy, while Muscat’s government record on the environment is poor.

The point is not that voters will mind that Labour diverges so much from the PES. It’s that Labour’s candidates will have to explain how they square the circle when asked whether they agree with this or that point of the PES platform, or, how they would vote if the issue came up in the European Parliament. Should they say they disagree with that platform other questions will follow – both to the candidate and to the PES general secretariat.

The pressure is growing within Labour for Joseph Muscat to make a definitive choice

Such questions will affect one Labour leadership hopeful, Miriam Dalli, in particular. For her, the election is her opportunity to show that she can win a significant number of personal votes on a national basis: a marker in the sand for her claim to succeed Muscat, given that the voters in the leadership election will be choosing someone with an established national profile as a vote winner.

Thus Dalli needs to top the Labour candidates in terms of votes won, as well as distinguish herself as a politician in her own right. So she will have to find a way of answering awkward questions (as they put their finger on Labour’s ideological contradictions) without compromising her future ambitions.

But a good result for her would also spur her would-be rivals to jockey more furiously for position. Read that to mean horse-trading. In that case, the rivalry will therefore need to be settled soon by a decision from Muscat.

The need for such a decision will be raised by the other result that will matter: the number of seats won by Labour. It is on course to win four. It will be difficult to win five simply because of the nature of the electoral system, but coming close will confirm Labour’s aura of invincibility.

A great result will inevitably raise the question about whether Muscat should retire. It’s a question he would probably rather not answer immediately, to leave himself room for manoeuvre depending on how other events and opportunities unfold.

None of the above means that Labour cannot navigate its way through. But it no doubt helps that the PN is undergoing its own leadership crisis and that, if it waits for the MEP results to lance the boil, all its politicians will be severely damaged by their dithering.

They will be unable to take advantage of Labour’s own crisis. While Labour will use the PN’s to weather its own.

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