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Will the public mood bring down Labour?

Citizens filled Castille Square again in a week of almost daily protest demanding Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's resignation. Photo: Pierre Ellul.

The Prime Minister’s haggard demeanour on Friday at 3am, after an all-night Cabinet meeting, spoke of defeat and fatigue. By midday, the talk was of his impending resignation.

After a week that saw events spiral out of his control, and lead to clamour for his resignation to grow at home and abroad, he seems to have realised that, politically, he is finished. He seems intent to stay on until charges are formally brought in the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination in a bid to achieve some kind of denouement or vindication.

If the adage goes that every political career ends up in failure, then Joseph Muscat’s political journey is heading towards an ignominy.

Friends and foes are already scouting out the post-Muscat landscape, and the question at the fore is whether the political evisceration of Muscat and his close disciples – all of whom have now stood aside – will serve to bring closure of sorts.

A groundswell of anger and bewilderment has made the public mood febrile. Something snapped last week. People who have so far been apolitical have descended onto the streets, and there’s much muttering among Labour ranks.

Amid this unpredictable public mood, there are two chief risks for the government.

One is that the narrow focus of the assassination investigation is likely to leave many questions unanswered. Muscat and his colleagues seem to be hinting about closure when someone is charged with ordering Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and the revelations have only been about the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ this week.

There seems to be little movement in the wider investigation into motive. Given the prime suspect’s association with the new power station as well as ownership of the infamous 17 Black, reportedly intended to inject monies into the once-secret accounts of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, most people’s understanding is that Caruana Galizia was assassinated because of her investigations into bribery in the power station deal.

Yet Schembri’s release from arrest suggests that there is stasis in the inquiry surrounding bribery and 17 Black. Progress on the assassination investigation, without concomitant movement on the investigation into the bribery, will not soothe people’s indignation.

On the contrary, that would give credence to the accusations or perception of a cover-up or stitch-up. At best it would be perceived as the incompetence of the police or judicial investigators or institutional paralysis due to insufficient separation of powers. (A whiff of this is already evident in anxiety over the revelations that Schembri might have attended secret service briefings about the investigations.)

The other risk for Labour is the handling of post-Muscat recalibration and review of flagship projects. Let’s not forget that the story on 17 Black and associated bribery raises the question of whether the new power station was needed in the first place. People would expect the government to tear up or renegotiate the contract binding the country to buy electricity from the power station – and gas from Azerbaijan – for the next fifteen years or so. This is fraught with legal and political complications.

Other flagship projects are also being questioned. These include the privatisation of three State hospitals, which is now also subject to a judicial investigation based on evidence published by The Shift.

Questions over the rationale of these projects are corrosive on the Labour party in government whatever happens.

Much depends on the reckoning within the Labour Party itself. The faction within Labour that has always been ideologically discontent with Muscat’s buccaneering economic-growth schemes – sale of passports, rampant property development and speculation, privatisations of key national assets, economic growth on the back of exploitation of immigrant labour – is now in the ascendant.

According to sources from within the Labour Party, these ideologues have been engaged in an internal whispering campaign against Muscat and his colleagues since Muscat’s failure to secure a position in the EU Commission and subsequent dithering about resigning. It was at that point that Muscat’s aura of invincibility, developed on the back of his runaway electoral successes, began to dissipate.

The discontent within Labour then grew with the approval of the Qala pool villa a month ago. The idea that a property magnate could be given a permit to convert a derelict room into a villa in the remote countryside trampled on any notion of social and environmental justice and reinforced the perception of Labour’s surrender to oligarchic interests.

It grew even further after Schembri’s desertion of the libel lawsuit he had himself filed against former PN Leader Simon Busuttil, opting to renounce the case rather than testify about 17 Black.

Yet the discontent within Labour has remained relatively muted, at least publicly, and recalibration would depend to what extent a new leader would engage in a repudiation of Muscat’s political project. It’s difficult to see how a new leader could wipe the slate clean without a purge – and a purge could lead to tension that will in turn damage the Party.

For the time being, as events surrounding the investigation and public mood take a life of their own, the government and the Party are still responding to public sentiment. The government’s survival in the medium term may now depend on whether it can regain the initiative and soothe public discontent.

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