Roberta Metsola: Victory For Her, A Loss For PN

Voters in the European Parliament elections turned their backs on mainstream ruling parties, producing a Green wave and giving a boost to anti-EU nationalists. Malta was the exception to these trends. Here, the elections were simply a referendum on the state of the two main parties. 

The long-predicted outcome was a sweeping victory for Labour, which took four of the six MEP seats available. In the local council elections, held on the same day, Labour made overwhelming gains, winning councils that were Nationalist strongholds. 

The implications for the Nationalist Party are momentous and have left it in turmoil. Governing parties – especially ones which have been in power for six years – routinely get punished in European elections. Yet the opposite has occurred. 

What do these results tell us about the state of Maltese politics today? 

First, the continuing trust in Joseph Muscat is undiminished. The invincibility of the Labour Party under his leadership has been confirmed. Second, it has shown again that there is nothing resembling a viable opposition ready to take office. For Adrian Delia, the PN leader, this was a stunningly bad performance. The voters have issued a clear warning. He is looking like a politician out of time.

Already the PN knives are out. Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has said Delia should put his leadership to the test and prove himself worthy of the post. The results of the European Parliament elections show “there is a sizeable faction of PN voters who decided to vote in a manner that sends a strong message to the leader, his advisers and party officials. This faction includes voters who decided to abstain from voting”.

This has always been Delia’s problem. Historically, the Nationalist Party has consisted of an uncomfortable coalition. When it was strongly led, divisions were kept in check. Even before his election as leader, Delia never convinced that faction of PN – very roughly defined as those influenced by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog comments about him and supporters of Simon Busuttil – to accept his democratic claim to the crown. 

The misplaced sense of entitlement of this faction has made Delia’s attempts at erecting a bridge across the chasm impossible. 

But the nub of the problem is that if Delia loses a vote of confidence at the forthcoming general council, the two obvious leaders-in-waiting, Simon Busuttil and the ambitious Roberta Metsola – even if they had the qualities of leadership the PN desperately needs – are likely to face the same kind of factionalism which has riven this fractured but once great party.

While Busuttil was prepared to place party and country above his successful role as a good MEP and was found severely wanting, his return as leader would simply reinforce earlier failure. Nor, despite her ambition and popularity, does Metsola possess the necessary mettle to sully her hands with the day-to-day grind of Maltese politics. She fills a comfortable and well-paid billet in Brussels and is too thin-skinned and lacking in guile for the hurly-burly of daily politics here. 

If she were persuaded to stand – and was successful – she would meet the same end as Simon Busuttil before her, and for much the same reason.

Leadership and factionalism are what separate the Labour and Nationalist parties today. The latter, badly led and fragmented. The former, utterly united and well-led

Leadership and factionalism are what separate the Labour and Nationalist parties today. The latter, badly led and fragmented. The former, utterly united and well-led, but likely to be facing a leadership election within the next year. So much now depends on whether Joseph Muscat adheres to his plan to hand over the reins to a new leader, as he has previously indicated. This, in turn, depends on whether, in the scramble for top posts in Brussels following the European elections, he is offered one to his liking.

Given the deep-rooted imperfections of Maltese politics and governance, on balance the energy, leadership and political judgement displayed by the Prime Minister has been seen as a force for good by the vast majority of people in Malta – as confirmed by successive electoral victories at national and European polls. In Muscat, Labour chose a leader who could speak across the classes, a bridge-builder able to gather a coalition of the bedrock Labour working class and the aspirant middle class. 

Moreover, the political strength of Labour can be measured by the depth and quality of ministers in the party who are capable of succeeding Joseph Muscat in a seamless handover. This is the measure of his stewardship over the last 11 years.

The political landscape in Malta will be dominated by whether the Prime Minister stands down. But also by a number of other looming issues: the economy; the environment; and the upsurge of racism. How these are handled will not only define Joseph Muscat’s legacy, but influence the outcome of the next general election.

The success of Malta’s economy in the last six years has been outstanding. The economic well-being of the vast majority of people (despite pockets of severe relative poverty) has been largely instrumental in maintaining high levels of political support for, and trust in, the government. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna’s deft management of the country’s sustainable development – one of the most successful in Europe – has been the keystone of this economic growth.

But there must now be action to temper the adverse impact which such rapid growth has inevitably engendered: the high cost of properties for sale or rent, the crowded roads, the impact on towns and villages of the construction boom and the consequent loss of quality of life and deleterious effects on tourism. The government’s future popularity and electability will turn on finding balanced solutions to these seemingly intractable problems.

Malta’s precious historic landscape has been under threat from successive governments for the last three or four decades. It has now reached a tipping point. The government must act to control the construction boom and the encroachment on green areas (ODZ), or pay a hefty electoral price.

Finally, there is depressing evidence from the votes cast for a far right candidate in the Euro-elections and the social media comments following the murder of an Ivorian immigrant, of an alarming upsurge of racism in Malta, which the government must tackle head-on. 

Successive governments have tiptoed round the issue. But rather like the threat to our historic landscape, Malta’s widespread xenophobia and innate racism pose massive peril to the country’s social stability and hegemony unless a long overdue government-led drive to rein them in is taken.

In 2020-21, Malta could find itself on the cusp of another turning point in its politics.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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