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The first 100 days of Robert Abela

How the hope of change dissipated in the first 100 days.

Robert Abela takes his oath of office. Photo: Jason Borg/DOI

With the turning of the decade, the beginning of 2020 brought about a new Prime Minister for Malta as 42-year-old Robert Abela was sworn in on 13 January. He succeeded an embattled Joseph Muscat who was forced to resign amid daily demonstrations following revelations which tied the people closest to his office to the brutal murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Abela’s win against Health Minister Chris Fearne, his only other contender for the post, came as a surprise until everyone understood that Muscat had been lobbying for his election among Party supporters. Abela played for the votes that mattered within the Labour Party while Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne campaigned the whole country.

As he continues to talk to his supporters from the Labour Party’s TV station instead of taking a stand for the nation on the State broadcaster that is only too willing to bend to his will, Abela’s need to make a mark on the nation is still a wishful dream.

The more you look into the first 100 days of Robert Abela, the more you see Joseph Muscat. This was, after all, Abela’s promise of ‘kontinwita’, but he still remains unable to establish himself as prime minister.

Let’s capture his stand on major issues in his first 100 days:

Migration

Muscat started his term as prime minister by attempting a push back, which was halted by NGOs. Similarly, Abela’s got off to a tragic start as, at least, 12 migrants died after the Maltese ports were closed, citing coronavirus. The same prime minister who refused to follow the advice of the health minister to lock down the country, opened up a hunting season allocating law enforcement resources needed for public health to feed a blood-thirsty lobby.

Abela chose to cover his stand with a patriotic stance, using the trolls and puppets from the administration he inherited to convince people he was right, even as a magisterial inquiry has been launched into his wrongdoing.  

Migrants on a dinghy next to rescue vessel Sea Watch. Photo: File photo from Sea Watch, 2019.

Similarly to how Muscat started his tenure in administration with a pushback, Abela used the coronavirus platform to make his stance on migration. By closing the ports and denying entry to migrants fleeing war and hunger in Africa, Abela took a populist decision at a time when the country is seemingly united to fight a pandemic. It seems that this unity and sense of community among the Maltese during these harsh times only needed some misguided patriotism to get the flame of racism started. The question is, will this decision serve as his moral compass for the remainder of his time in power?

What makes this macho show of patriotism similar to Muscat’s is that, following even the slightest show of force against migration, government-paid trolls come out to throw the dirt and incite national unity – the more politically correct alternative to racism.     

Environment

Muscat had this freak vision of turning Malta into the next Singapore or Dubai and the rampant abuse of non-stop construction and questionable building permits under his government was a testament to this. Abela, unfortunately, seems to share this love of concrete and construction debris. 

In a meeting held with the Malta Developers Association, the Prime Minister declared the construction industry will play a vital role in saving the country’s economy after the pandemic.

While the pandemic brought businesses and day-to-day activities to a standstill, the Planning Authority was still dishing out development permits.

central link protest 2019
Protesters stand in front of the trees along the planned Central Link route. Photo: Joanna Demarco.

The chopping of trees seems to be another victim of Abela’s continuity. While everyone is locked away because of coronavirus, the government made sure the trees lining Mdina Road in Attard were chopped down for the controversial Central Link project. 

Press Freedom

Abela’s PL leadership campaign involved almost no interaction with the press. During his campaign, he sidelined the independent media completely and didn’t even invite the press for the launch. He even managed to skip one of the only occasions where he could have faced media, at a planned discussion with the Chamber of Commerce. 

There was hope, however, at the very start of his time in power, that this Prime Minister would  perhaps respect free speech. This belief was spurred by his announcement not to have the protest memorial for slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia cleared of candles and flowers – a move the adminstration he formed part of condoned.

Poinsettias and candles surrounded the protest memorial last December for assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Joanna Demarco.

With a tiny step forward, we get slapped back to reality. In a televised speech aired by the State broadcaster, Abela lashed out at civil society organisation Repubblika for filing two criminal complaints following migrant deaths.

The statement by the Prime Minister was followed by the NGO receiving an unprecedented amount of insults and attacks online. Repubblika described the speech by the Prime Minister as a “coordinated attack”, adding that Abela was using the pandemic to attack democracy.

Meanwhile, Malta’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index continued to fall, dropping another four places after it had plunged 30 places in the previous two years. Continuity, indeed.

Rule of Law

Abela did give everyone hope at the start that he would be a different leader. He had Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi removed from Cabinet. Keith Schembri, who is mentioned in the investigation surrounding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, was also replaced.

These decisions were praised but should have served as the first step towards a bigger goal – to bring those entangled in scandal and corruption to justice. Abela, clearly, has no intention of bringing these people to justice. Is there truth to the rumour that this is the price he negotiated on our behalf to get the title and ensure ‘continuity”?

Robert Abela is sworn in as Prime Minister as President George Vella (right) looks on. Photo: DOI, Clodagh O’Neill

There are positive efforts to bring a democratic country back to normal by Abela which should be mentioned. The Prime Minister did have Justyne Caruana resign because of her husband’s links to Yorgen Fenech, the suspected mastermind of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder. It is only unfortunate that Caruana was replaced by Clint Camilleri who was also put in charge of hunting even though he is a declared hunter himself. 

The agreement between government and Opposition to appoint Judge Mark Chetcuti as Chief Justice was a step in the right direction.  So was the setting up of a governance committee, although the move was immediately criticized by Repubblika who said this served no purpose if the people in it are not trained in good governance.

The Covid-19 factor  

A country’s leader shows his true colours when faced with a crisis and a climate of uncertainty. And he’s not doing very well. His initiatives to help businesses and families in this crisis had to be sent back to the drawing board because stakeholders made it very clear that this was not nearly as sufficient help to the economy. And he still hasn’t got it right.

A woman walks her dog in a street of closed shops, Sliema. Photo: Joanna Demarco

Corruption

If there’s one thing a crisis teaches us is that it’s the people who pay the price of corruption. The decision by the Muscat administration to sell off the country’s energy and healthcare assets has meant people got a raw deal.

While the price of oil went below zero for the first time in history, Malta has a finance minister who says the government cannot reduce electiricty tariffs for those struggling to cope because China didn’t like the idea. No question on who brought in the Chinese and the Azerbaijanis, who now control whether we can afford to switch on a light while in quarantine.

Everything is connected. Just like the €70 million being paid to Steward Healthcare every year, which can be used to help families or those in need especially at a time when the poorest will suffer the most because of the pandemic.

For some of those in power, politics is a game. The crisis becomes a feeding ground for undying, blind support and issues like migration become a political football. But if Abela wants to be prime minister, he has yet to convince the nation.

Robert Abela with Joseph Muscat.

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