In the long weekend leading to May 1, everybody felt that a snap election would be called. It was the talk of town, newspapers were speculating and political parties were spinning.
Then, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat pronounced the inevitable. He did so at a party meeting in front of the Prime Minister’s office, with the podium just in front of the main door. A symbolic confirmation of Malta’s lack of distinction between State and party.
Not that we had a lack of this in the past weeks. From the collapse of public trust in the Commissioner of Police to the massive increase in Tagħna Lkoll positions of trust, to the lack of resignations, Muscat personifies the party-state par excellence.
One could also note the Planning Authority’s timed decisions and non-decisions, depending on the political ramifications of each application in question. Decisions on politically sensitive projects such as the Paceville master plan and Sliema Townsquare were postponed, while small-scale individual developments in rural areas are being granted permission like hotcakes.
But what is really striking in Muscat’s decision to hold a snap election, is that he probably is even preceding the normal time frames to take advantage of the power of incumbency.
Alfred Sant had spoken at length about incumbency after the 2008 general elections. This refers to how the party in government uses the state apparatus to its electoral advantage. This could include resurfacing roads, employing people and so forth. Usually this takes time and various projects are planned to be finalised near election time. Photo opportunities and unveiling of plaques galore.
In a previous article in the Times of Malta I had imagined that Labour would use money from the non-transparent cash-for-passports scheme to give favours. But maybe it did not even have time for this. Or maybe it did. At this stage one can only speculate, as this scheme is shrouded in secrecy.
Muscat therefore could not take full advantage of the power of incumbency, despite a massive parliamentary majority. The Panama Papers scandal is escalating like an uncontrollable snowball, and the consequences of this cannot be predicted in advance. Nor can they be controlled in a runaway world of global networks, social media and reflexive citizens.
So Muscat might have calculated that it would be better to hold an election as early as possible so as to avoid further escalation of the crisis of his own making. But he would probably know that even an electoral victory might only postpone the crisis we are in.
Muscat’s snap election would also put disgruntled Labour activists in line, as when one is in war mode there is no time to debate. Only that member of parliament Godfrey Farrugia quickly said that he has nothing to do with this.
So Muscat is now doing his utmost to bank on the country’s economic performance, and promise improvements across the board. To promise yet another batch of income tax decreases, while expanding social welfare.
To promise the finishing of the only infrastructural project carried out under his government, namely the Kappara flyover. To promise a tunnel between Malta and Gozo. To promise resurfacing all of Malta’s roads. To promise jobs, promotions and housing. We can only imagine what else is to come. I wouldn’t bet on promises to remove Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
In the meantime, some are resorting to a myriad of explanations to justify Muscat. This ranges from the cynical ‘all politicians are the same’ bait to the pseudo-historical faith that Labour is destined to modernise Malta as it is the workers’ party. Only that workers do not usually form part of the Panama Papers elite.
I believe Muscat’s strategy was very simple, really: the dominant group in the Labour government has a 10-year plan to populate its assets. This is done while attempting to buy support from specific single-issue lobbies/individuals and from the public through feudal electoral freebies financed by the taxpayer. Never mind the real bill.
In the meantime, the Labour PR machine is doing its utmost to depict Muscat as offering a safe pair of hands, as a strong leader, and so forth. Only that his body language is giving him away.