Joseph Muscat has been present in my political and sociological experiences for the past 20 years or so.
This goes back to the run-up to the 1996 general election. Prospective prime minister Alfred Sant was depicted as the moderniser of Malta. Assisted by Labour intellectuals such as Mario Vella, Evarist Bartolo and Alfred Mifsud, Sant ridded Labour of its violent elements and embraced polices and strategies which were previously anathema.
Labour opened up to the middle class and embraced liberal market economics. Other aspects of Labour’s tradition were retained. These included the top-down culture of strong party leadership and the anti-colonial heritage in foreign policy.
New Labour duly won the election but it imploded after 22 months, largely due to the conflict between Sant and Labour’s old patriarch Dom Mintoff.
At the time Muscat was a young Labour activist. Before the 1996 elections, he wrote a charming book on Alfred Sant. After the 1998 general elections, Muscat’s stature kept growing within Labour, and he remained very close to the Sant ‘modernising’ intellectual circle referred to above. Like future PN leader Simon Busuttil, Muscat was a positive performer as a European parliamentarian.
When Labour lost yet another election in 2008, Muscat announced his candidature for the post of leader. During his campaign, I met him at his Malta office. It was a friendly meeting, and he asked me if greens would be interested in joining Labour and coordinating some form of environmental section. I was flattered by his offer, and I thought it was interesting, but I refused.
Some greens did eventually join Labour though. Both Muscat and myself eventually became respective party leaders. The only times we met at this time was during party leader debates in the run-up to the 2013 general election. I could not help notice his growing stature as a confident and charismatic leader, whose only way was up.
In the meantime, in separate writings, I noted the ‘progressive and moderate’ articulation of the party’s strategy. I said that such a politics without adversaries might win elections but could eventually lead to political implosion due to non-reconcilable interests.
Muscat’s Labour won the election in 2013. His performance was massive. His aura of invincibility was repeated in the European Parliament elections a year later.
But then cracks started to appear. First it was the Manuel Mallia incident. Then it was Michael Falzon. Both of them lost their positions, but were still coopted within Labour’s governing structure. Anġlu Farrugia had experienced something similar when he was removed from deputy leader for a remark he made before the 2013 general election, only to find himself as speaker in the subsequent parliamentary formation.
Muscat seemed strong with such Labour stalwarts. And he also cemented the loyalty of others in the party through extra-paid duties for parliamentarians and various Tagħna Lkoll exponents.
Cracks grew larger when Muscat announced the development of a private University on Żonqor ODZ land. This resulted in the largest civil society protest ever, influencing Muscat to alter his announced plans. A sort of win-win, if you like.
As Labour’s governance was tainted by constant corrupt practices, parliamentarian Marlene Farrugia distanced herself from Labour, eventually resulting in her role in the Forza Nazzjonali electoral coalition. Labour’s whip Godfrey Farrugia recently followed suit.
When the Panama Papers scandal broke out, Muscat’s image of strength started to be in serious doubt. He could have dismissed Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, but he did the opposite. A series of unintended consequences emerged, and he seemed less in control.
Eventually, Muscat contradicted what he had said some weeks earlier and called an early election, despite having a massive parliamentary majority (unlike Sant in 1998). He also refused to discuss Panama Papers with the European Parliament.
Muscat today retains his charisma and strength as party leader, but he has also become a parody of his former self.
Even if he wins the election (which is in itself doubtful), he may have only postponed implosion.
Sometimes Simon Busuttil is criticised for being a weak leader. I disagree, and I will say why. Let’s go back some years. In the early years leading to the run-up to Malta’s EU accession, I was active in left-wing group Moviment Graffitti.
We wanted an informed debate on whether to support Malta’s EU accession or not. So we organised two respective debates with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was heading the Campaign for National Independence, and Simon Busuttil, who was heading the Malta-EU Information Centre.
It was the first time I met Simon.
I remember him putting forward convincing, rational arguments for EU accession. Such reasoned, realistic and left-of-centre arguments charmed me.
They were very similar to those of my inspirational friend and fellow sociologist Noel Agius. When I then joined the Green Party, the knowledge I obtained from such persons equipped me during the campaign for Malta’s EU accession.
Malta consequently joined the European Union and Simon was elected MEP with incredible support. I did not meet him again for some years.
As the 2013 general election was approaching, I met Simon in political debates. I was then leader of the Green Party and he was PN deputy leader.
We did not agree on everything, but we debated respectfully. A far cry from other debates I had with some others such as the then-unknown Konrad Mizzi, who excelled in hysterics when we debated on Norman Vella’s TVHemm.
The 2013 general election came and went, Mizzi became part of Labour’s Panama triumvirate and Simon became leader of the Opposition, leaving his lucrative career of Europarliamentarian.
Subsequently, I met Simon some other times, for example when I was invited to address a PN convention with others such as the late Jacqueline Azzopardi and James Debono, in Front Harsien ODZ public activities against the Żonqor development and in some other meetings.
Late in 2015, when Labour’s governance deficit was increasing by the day, I penned an article in the Times of Malta arguing for a rainbow coalition. Eventually, Marlene Farrugia and her new formation, the PD, negotiated with Simon’s PN and formed Forza Nazzjonali.
In 2016, I proposed this idea face to face both to Simon and Arnold Cassola in separate meetings.
Simon made it clear to me that while the PN can open up to collaborate with others, it cannot change its name. Here I immediately noted that Simon is a leader who listens and takes up new ideas but who is also determined in his position. And judging by PN’s agreement with PD, I think that his position is sensible, proportionate and realistic.
I also noted Simon’s determination when he took clear and correct positions on various issues and internal appointments, some of which were not very comforting for some within his own party. He also attracted some new faces to the PN.
When Simon asked me whether I would like to contest the general elections, I explained that I have no aspiration to become a member of parliament. He gently accepted my position, and did not try to pressure me.
And when I decided out of my own will to attend the national protest against corruption of April 24, he also invited me to address it, which I accepted.
I think that the way he mixes his determination with his hearing skills can also be seen in the way he works. Unlike pop politicians who agree with whatever you tell them but then act in other ways, he politely tells you when he disagrees with you.
The man has character.
His two deputy leaders represent different wings in the party. His coalition with PD shows that he respects Farrugia for what she is. The various progressive proposals being put forward by Forza Nazzjonali show that PN is not ossified into ideological dead ends, but is responsive to people’s aspirations, to its coalition partners and to civil society.
What a difference from Malta’s current Prime Minister. Joseph Muscat tries to give an impression of strength, but he is afraid to debate with Farrugia and to accept the European Parliament’s invitation to discuss Panama Papers.
Above all, he is afraid of completing a five-year legislature.