The return to public life by Joseph Muscat, the disgraced former prime minister, has attracted a lot of commentary. But it has tended to focus on the balance of power between Muscat and his successor, Robert Abela.
There’s more to the episode. It reveals a significant shift in the balance of power between the government and some of its important cronies.
But, first, let’s note that, in becoming President of the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association, the laundering of Muscat’s reputation has already begun.
Several outlets that reported the news referred to him simply as “the former prime minister”, much as they might describe his honourable predecessors. One outlet didn’t go so far but watered “disgraced” down to “controversial”.
All this even though there’s no controversy about his tainted name. The significant corruption on his watch is documented. It is affirmed even by some foreign governments. No European institution, comparable to the ones that gave top jobs to Simon Busuttil and Roberta Metsola, will touch him.
It was a struggle for him to get even this post. Muscat had made clear, privately, that he wanted a far stronger mandate. Only half the clubs voted for him; the rest opposed or abstained.
His appointment was, of course, opposed tooth and nail by Abela, who, according to reports, made it clear to the clubs that there would be hefty consequences if they crossed him. Yet, seven clubs, led by Hamrun’s Joseph Portelli, defied Abela.
It’s not wrong to see this result as a personal victory by Muscat, with Abela as the loser. For obvious reasons, the personal struggle between the two men needs to be reported.
By focusing only on Muscat and Abela, however, we miss sight of the seven clubs that defied the prime minister. The clubs are associated with businessmen; the rebellion was led by Portelli, the notorious developer and Labour insider.
Think about it. A group of businessmen were essentially threatened with sanctions by Abela, who in principle controls the patronage and crony network they need, but they defied him anyway.
In other words, they believed they could act with impunity in the face of the man who threatened to withdraw his unreserved patronage. They must either think he was bluffing or that he will have to back down.
This is a significant change in the informal balance of power. Since 2013, it was difficult to cross the prime minister without incurring sanctions. You needed his blessing or at least his toleration.
Here, however, Abela expressly opposed the choice of Muscat in advance. Portelli and friends went ahead anyway.
The leverage used to be in the hands of the Office of the Prime Minister. This is the first case where, publicly, we can see that some powerfully connected businessmen believe the leverage is in their hands. And they are ready to display it.
An attitude of impunity was previously manipulated by the Labour government in its interests and against its critics. Now, some businessmen are not afraid to thwart Labour openly.
The stakes must be high for the businessmen. So are the risks. Muscat is well connected and intelligent. But the reputation he’s trying to clean up in Malta remains tainted elsewhere. He’s a walking red flag. What he does will attract scrutiny beyond Malta, possibly by investigative agencies.
We still need to see if Abela will, after all, hit back hard. If he doesn’t, then this case isn’t just a matter of Abela losing a round. It’s a sign of loss of control that spills beyond a single episode.
We know enough about the Muscat years to see how impunity developed in conjunction with the weakness of the police force and the office of the Attorney General. It’s taken no time for Abela’s Attorney General to lose all credibility. His handpicked police commissioner is facing a crunch — not just in terms of public criticism but also in terms of officers leaving the force.
The acceleration of events is striking. It took Muscat several years, as prime minister, before he lost control over events. It seems to have taken Abela only two and a half years.