On having to carry out tricky reforms or steady the country after political turmoil, Chinese political leaders like to express the intention to forge ahead cautiously by making an analogy of crossing the river by feeling the stones underfoot. That analogy has never been truer for a Maltese political leader than for Robert Abela.
And as Abela stands on the bank of the river, preparing to cross by feeling the stones, he senses that his lieutenants stand behind him only passively. If he slips, few of them if any would rush to his rescue.
For despite flanking him and standing behind him, the Party’s elite – the ministers, the grandees, the intellectual core of the party – are inwardly indignant at the manner Abela snatched the premiership, and consternated about his unproven abilities.
Let’s not forget that the core of the party had coalesced around a plan to ease Chris Fearne into the premiership. Even front line politicians more popular than Abela – the likes of Ian Borg and Miriam Dalli – put a hold on their ambitions for the sake of unity, loyalty and fairness. The understanding was that Fearne, as the deputy leader, deserved the premiership. And the ambitious Dalli and Borg decided to bide their time.
Not Abela. He made a run for the leadership in an opportunistic and disruptive manner.
In the leadership campaign, Fearne reached out to the country while Abela pandered to the partisan and parochial sentiments of the bulk of Labour Party members. The party establishment treated Abela with sufferance, and considered Fearne’s victory a given. Then the dark horse won, and the establishment in the party – as well as the country – has been in suspended belief ever since the surprise result.
Abela’s first words were that the party had won. A more precise way to put it is that partisanship has won.
And now Abela’s troubles are about to begin. For starters, some of Labour’s senior politicians will never forgive Abela for breaking ranks in a scramble for the premiership when all the others had united around Fearne’s anointment.
Abela’s initial speeches – high on rhetorical rambles, short on specifics – have intensified consternation about his inexperience and unpreparedness. He has even heralded his victory as the beginning of stability, and immediately begun to talk about the woeful lapses of rule of law in the past tense. It’s almost as if he expects that his coronation, his virtuous rhetoric, and charm offensive would bring about a leap of faith that would redeem the country and party.
The country needs change; Abela has only offered vague hope.
He has not mentioned one specific thing that he shall do. He has not spelled out anything beyond the big, empty juxtapositions of “continuity” and “change” that he has invoked. On Monday, he made more noises about ushering in an era of stability, unity, and the generation of wealth.
It’s hard to quibble with these ideals. But the country doesn’t need sermons, it needs workable and specific solutions of which he has offered none yet.
Perhaps he has been caught unaware by his unexpected surge to victory. The signs he has given so far are of a political novice who has not been roughened by the trials of leadership. Fearne was supposed to hit the ground running, propelled by the support of his colleagues and a strong sense of destination and how to get there.
Instead we got Abela, who has yet to ripen as a leader. He may yet surprise us, but it’s hard to shake off the signs of a fumbling leader.
One thing is for sure. Abela is set to discover that victory among the partisan-minded was the easy part, and that the river is full of slippery stones.
For the Nationalist Party, Delia’s stature will grow in comparison, and he may come to be seen as the steadier voice.