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Malta

[ANALYSIS] Muscat’s fall from grace: From ‘invictus’ to inglorious exit

Joseph Muscat’s rise to the top was artfully planned to perfection.

So was his tenure in office during his first legislature. He managed to be politically shrewd and even sometimes ruthless, without losing the charm which earned him the trust of the electorate.

In opposition he ditched any albatross, abolishing the post of general secretary to remove the Sant-era Jason Micallef from the heart of the party’s administration, and even sacked his deputy leader Anglu Farrugia on the eve of the 2013 election when he suddenly became a liability.

Yet he also reached out to former Nationalists, including some of his predecessor’s bête-noirs like the former MPs John Dalli and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, and in the process building not just a majority but a super-majority.

Reshaping the party

He did so by shifting Labour to Nationalist territory, keeping old Labour on board by presenting himself as a new Mintoff with his assertiveness but without appearing divisive, and making Malta Taghna Lkoll a battle-cry.

He understood the signs of the times, shifted his party to more liberal positions after the watershed divorce referendum, winning the heart of many people rendered invisible by the conservative establishment, and ensuring that the business establishment would not reject him.

On this count he conducted a successful political experiment: a Nationalist-friendly Labour party with a socially-liberal edge and a unifying message of hope after 25 years of PN governments.

In power he perfected the art of ‘listening’ to criticism, even changing views when these risked becoming toxic on the international stage, as was the case with the pushback rhetoric on immigration; and even sacking ministers embroiled in scandal as was the case with Emmanuel Mallia and Michael Falzon.

By shedding the idea that Labour posed a danger to the economy, he further broadened the party’s appeal to Nationalist voters.

Enter the crooks

Yet even before entering Castille and much later, a shadow had been lurking in the corridors of power, as many poachers started assuming the role of game-keepers.

Even before the 2013 election, it was former deputy leader Anglu Farrugia who retaliated at his forced resignation, first raising the spectre of backroom dealing with leading contractors on the fabled ‘fourth floor’ of the Labour Party headquarters. In power, the cosy relationship with the Malta Developers Association and its bubbly leader Sandro Chetchuti was accompanied by a series of policies aimed at kick-starting a building boom, which slowly but steadily resulted in controversial planning decisions.

Added to this was a persistent association with upstart, potentially shady and piratical elements in international capitalism, best illustrated by the sale of public hospitals to a shell company whose owners remained unknown for years; the dishing of public land at Zonqor and Bormla to a Jordanian construction company with no experience in running a ‘university’; and the sale of citizenship piloted by Henley & Partners, in a decision which turned EU citizenship into a tradeable commodity.

But it was the revelation that his chief of staff Keith Schembri and his energy minister Konrad Mizzi had set up secret companies in Panama just after the 2013 election which cast the first dark shadow that rattled trust in Muscat.

Despite being shaken when first hit by the storm, he kept Mizzi in government albeit with a reduced portfolio. Muscat survived the storm. In the electoral balance sheet, social gains like civil liberties, free childcare, cheaper energy bills, full employment and economic growth still outweighed the darker side, which lurked on the side-lines eating away at Labour from the inside but not endangering its electoral lead.

In short, the people who had seen their life change for the better could not afford to throw away the baby out with the bathwater. But that water was becoming too toxic even to ensure the baby’s long-term survival. But that was not all too visible to the wider electorate which remained entranced by Muscat’s charm and optimism.

The escalation leading to the 2017 general election saw Muscat firmly rejecting the Egrant allegations, but discarding more evidence-based allegations related to his chief of staff’s offshore business interests: the first hint which linked 17 Black – a Dubai offshore company – to Keith Schembri and the Electrogas power station. Muscat emerged unscathed, winning by a similar margin as before and feeling strong enough to immediately reappoint Schembri as chief of staff and Mizzi in the Cabinet as tourism minister. The script now had changed, without any signs of contrition, and Mizzi could even claim that the electorate had absolved him.

With the Opposition in tatters and torn by division, Muscat seemed invincible, a living testimony to the tattoo allegedly inscribed on his right bicep – ‘invictus’.

But the sunny period of Muscat’s second electoral honeymoon came to an abrupt end with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist first to expose the Panama scandal and cryptically the existence of 17 Black, the company which ultimately linked Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi to Yorgen Fenech. Yet despite increased international scrutiny Muscat did manage to present himself as a statesman promising to leave no stone unturned, with the police pinning down three suspects in a potato shed, in a spectacular operation which was living proof that despite criticism. the police was making progress.

Yet this only offered little respite, as the mastermind of the assassination and his motives remained a mystery.

Planning the glorious exit?

Still even at this early stage Muscat started planning his own political exit, declaring in February 2018 that he will not be leading his party in the next election, something in line with his previous declaration that he would serve 10 years in office, a commitment which did not exclude him winning yet another election and resigning immediately afterwards. Legacy became one of his buzzwords.

Yet it was clear from day one that Muscat’s prospect of a glorious exit and his personal legacy, depended on the solution of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination which had thrown Malta under the international spotlight. This may well have posed a catch 22 for Muscat. While his legacy depended on the case being solved under his watch, any revelation linking the assassination to persons close to him would have marred his legacy beyond any prospect of redemption.

Yet till some point the stars seemed to be still aligned in Muscat’s favour. Boosted by the conclusions of the Egrant inquiry which found no evidence for claims that he or his wife were the beneficial owners of the Panama company, he managed to deal another blow against Simon Busuttil and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s memory. At this stage the Opposition was divided and his most intransigent critics delegitimised.

But it now emerges that all throughout this period Muscat and his chief of staff were aware that the Electrogas shareholder and 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech, was to some degree involved in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia through information relayed by the Security Service. It was also during this period that an international probe had finally exposed Yorgen Fenech as the owner of 17 Black, the Dubai offshore company mentioned as Schembri’s target client by the Panama Papers. This inevitably raises the question: did Muscat’s search for a dignified exit impinge on the search for the truth on Caruana Galizia’s murder?

After delivering another electoral knock-out to the Opposition in the European and local elections, Muscat even entertained promotion to European office, aspiring to the post of the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs or even President of the European Council. Looking at events from hindsight, Muscat’s attempts to place himself in a position of power at the core of the European Union, while to some degree aware of the ticking time-bomb posed by knowledge of the 17 Black owner’s involvement in the murder, looks bizarre and sinister.

Yet with his hopes of EU office were dashed, and Muscat was forced to put a lid on the succession battle between senior Cabinet ministers, which was already escalating during the summer months. He did so by first calling on the contenders to stop campaigning and then publicly excluding resigning from office in 2020, dishing speculation that the 2019 budget was the last one to be delivered by an administration led by himself. It seemed Muscat was firmly in place for the next two years. Doubts even started to be entertained on whether he would be relinquishing his post before the next general election.

How force majeure skewed his exit plan

It was only in the past few weeks that Muscat lost control of events.

It started with revelations that a “businessman” was the mastermind behind the murder. Yet it was the arrest of taxi driver Melvin Theuma in a money laundering investigation, which set the ball rolling, leading to Yorgen Fenech’s attempted escapade from his gilded cage at Portomaso, and his arrest and arraignment on Saturday.

Muscat did try to play the “leaving no stones unturned” script. But inevitably Muscat’s past inaction against Schembri’s offshore connections with Fenech, returned to haunt him with a vengeance especially after Schembri himself was held for questioning and Yorgen Fenech turned his guns on his former friend and business associate.

At that stage Muscat lost his moral authority.

Yet it was last Friday’s 3:00 am press conference after a stormy cabinet meeting, during which he promising to soldier on to ensure that the Caruana Galizia case is solved on his watch, that ultimately sealed Muscat’s inglorious exit. It was a declaration which diminished him, fuelling speculation that he was once again buying time and possibly seeking to influence events over which he had already lost control.

Enter the emergency exit strategy

On Friday, ignoring popular wisdom that when in a hole, one should stop digging, he communicated his imminent resignation while at the same time hinting that he would stay on until a new Labour leader is elected after a short campaign held in the festive period.

And despite reports that some Cabinet members stood their ground, trying to force Muscat out, Muscat ultimately had his way, with his decision to stay on for the next few weeks being given unanimous endorsement. The question is: how can any leader reclaim moral and political authority in both party and nation after years dominated by the towering presence of Joseph Muscat, who by now has shaped the party and to some extent the country in his own image?

For the greatest pitfall may be that Muscat’s sudden fall from grace is happening in a political vacuum, with the Labour party having been side-lined for the past years as the real power had shifted to a trusted cabal, which included Keith Schembri which operated in Castille.

A short leadership campaign held during the festive season with Muscat still at the helm sends a strong message that change is not coming anytime soon, especially with loyalists giving more importance to surveys than the alienation of those who would normally support a social democratic government but now feel angry and betrayed.

Muscat may stay on to get the applause of the party’s general conference, even casting a shadow on the election of his successor through sheer incumbency. But he leaves the party paying the price for his unforgivable mistakes.

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