Yesterday evening, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat broadcast his final new year message. He now only has less than two weeks left as leader of the Labour Party, and he will then step down as prime minister.
As usual, he listed the government’s achievements of the last year. But the big story, of course, is his upcoming resignation. In his message, Muscat also tried to try to shape that story in people’s minds.
His line is that he will resign because he is assuming responsibility for decisions and actions, which were not necessarily his own.
But that, of course, is not the whole truth. The decision to not sack Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi following the revelations of the Panama Papers, was taken by Muscat himself. Had he not opted for that decision in 2016, and had he not stuck to it despite huge pressure, his political career might have ended differently.
Muscat’s extravagant private holiday in Dubai after Christmas, openly living beyond his means in the midst of this national political crisis, was stunningly inappropriate. Even to those who trusted and believed in him, Muscat’s image is being transformed and disintegrating. A dramatic metamorphosis is taking place.
This is a time of year when everyone is constantly meeting at parties, lunches and dinners. Conversations are filled with unanswered questions, which Muscat must answer. Here are a couple of the obvious ones:
Firstly, how close is Muscat’s friendship with Yorgen Fenech? In November Muscat was asked by the press when he last met Fenech. He looked up at the sky, hesitated, asked the reporter which day it was, and offered a vague answer. He said he had met him about a year ago, “like I meet all people in business. I meet everyone”.
It has since been revealed that Muscat invited Fenech to his birthday party at Girgenti last February. It was a private party, without Cabinet colleagues. He already knew then, that Fenech was a suspect in the murder investigation.
When this invitation was revealed, sources close to Muscat said to the press that investigators had advised him not to change his behaviour in any way that could tip Fenech off. So Fenech clearly must have been a regular guest at Muscat’s private parties, if the invitation was expected.
Here’s another obvious question. Why did Muscat allow Keith Schembri to attend the police briefings at which Yorgen Fenech was identified as a suspect in the assassination? Schembri has claimed in court that he never revealed to the police investigators that Fenech was his close friend. But Muscat certainly knew, as he is himself part of this circle of friends.
Muscat is now claiming that he is the target of a ‘smear campaign’. Expensive gifts which Fenech gave him are being revealed, including a Bvlgari watch, another watch, and Petrus vintage wines. Revealing inconvenient truths is, however, hardly a smear campaign.
Already this Sunday, another national protest is being organized in Valletta and it will surely pull a large crowd. Justice has not yet been done. People are not satisfied and business cannot carry on as usual under a new prime minister. Muscat cannot expect to hand over the reins and continue to pull strings in the background. But neither can he just walk away. He has a political mess to answer for.
It has been clearly shown that deep changes in our political system and structures are needed. Muscat had promised to overhaul the Constitution and we can only be grateful that it did not happen under his watch. But basic elements in the way in which our institutions function, in how important offices are appointed, must be revisited. Too much power is vested in the hands of one man, the prime minister.
In his message last night, Muscat made it clear that he did not wish to leave his office in this way. He is exiting under the cloud of the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, together with widespread suspicions of corruption at the heart of government. Nonetheless, Muscat claims that he did everything he could have done.
In his annual speech exactly one year ago, Muscat had proudly said that Malta can be the best in Europe, and the envy of the world. Instead, this year the country has experienced a reputational train crash. The new year has just begun today, and 2020 must be a year to try to salvage Malta out of that wreckage and move on.