So, it’s Robert Abela, after all, who’s our next Prime Minister. Critics and supporters alike have called him the continuity candidate. But we’re about to find out there’s no such thing as continuity. The world does not stand still. It waits for no one.
The long list of Cabinet ministers who endorsed Abela’s rival, Chris Fearne, have already found this out. Ordinary Labour members, choosing Abela by a comfortable margin, showed they effectively consider the ministers to be out of touch with the Malta they’re supposedly overseeing.
It’s not the first time that ministers were publicly ignored this way. Seven years ago, in the deputy leadership race, Nationalist Party councillors likewise ignored the Cabinet ministers’ declared favourite. Some years later, Labour delegates ignored the clear preference of Joseph Muscat for Helena Dalli as deputy prime minister and instead elected Fearne.
The mainstream media, too, has been caught out. Nothing in the campaign’s coverage indicated the level of Abela’s support. You were more likely to come across stories that showed Abela slipping up. It wasn’t fake news. But it did show that the media’s sources were inadequate for reporting and understanding the choice of nothing less than the next prime minister.
A turbulent world has shown it cannot be treated complacently. It nurses its secrets and volatility. Abela’s message was indeed one of continuity but it’s clear that he was voted in by activists who believe that their own government was losing its way, cut off from ordinary people’s socio-economic pressures.
Abela projected himself as an empathetic listener, who understood both the young, who struggle to get into the property market, and the elderly, who need to choose between food and medicines. Abela’s victory is, in its own way, an indication of the gap between the conventional measures of economic development and how it’s being experienced in terms of human development.
The restless world will not spare the new prime minister, either. Even if he adopts Joseph Muscat’s methods of centralised decision-making and patronage, it cannot be straightforward continuity. He will be governing in a different context from his predecessor.
He will be dealing with the consequences of Brexit. We do not know if it will seriously damage the UK economy. But the new prime minister will have to make allowances for such an eventuality. A UK slowdown would hit our tourist figures and possibly the gaming industry’s UK market share.
From this week, Abela will be governing with the next general election in mind. It will coincide with the general elections in France and Germany. In both cases, the incumbents are in trouble. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s successor may well be minded, if only for domestic electoral purposes, to make threatening noises about reforming EU rules that affect jurisdictions like Malta.
Even if it’s only rhetoric, it would be a distraction. The rhetoric alone would affect decisions and choices at home.
Then there are the political fuses still burning menacingly. The continuing revelations from the various investigations related to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The results of the inquiry into the VGH hospital deal, which could affect the career of Edward Scicluna, not only Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi – not to mention the deal’s possible nullity. Any fallout could lead to more protests as well as widening cracks in Labour unity.
Let’s not forget the international pressures on money laundering, judicial appointments, correspondent banks… Abela will face these issues at a stage far more advanced than Muscat did. The latter adopted a strategy of delay. But it’s unlikely that strategy will work now. The various international institutions have wised up to it.
These are all objective difficulties that any prime minister would face. They are nagging, exhausting problems even if, thanks to a streak of unbelievable luck, they all end up going Abela’s way.
But it’s not any prime minister who will be facing them. It’s a former backbencher, with no ministerial experience, who’s said he will retain the current administrative structure. We’ll soon know just what he meant. However, although Muscat’s disgrace was brought about by crooks running amok, it was the administrative structure that enabled them.
You cannot divorce the scandals that brought down Muscat from the way things were run. The sense of impunity was enabled by the routine use of non-State servers, the routine deployment of online troops to denigrate critics and expose their personal details, by secretive public contracts and flagrant disregard for freedom of information.
Abela was elected by voters much concerned about the welfare state. The campaign showed less concern with the niceties of good governance. But it’s no coincidence that the world’s most sustainable welfare states are also the most liberal, accountable and transparent. The world reserves nasty surprises for those who divorce social welfare from liberal dignity.