Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, May 22, 2017

Is Joseph Muscat a strong leader?

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.

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