Sun, sea and… politics

Steve Mallia

In Focus: Malta

Joseph Muscat has had his fair share of stick since coming to power last year, with opponents criticising his proposals for springtime hunting permits and an unsympathetic asylum seeker policy


Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Photo: World Economic Forum/Qilai Shen

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Photo: World Economic Forum/Qilai Shen


It had to happen someday – in 2013 the party that had governed Malta for a quarter of a century was toppled from power. Actually it had lost an election once before in that time, some 16 years earlier, but that merely proved to be a two-year hiatus. This one was very much for real, with the opposing Labour Party winning a 36,000 majority, which translated into a nine-seat parliamentary cushion. That may not sound like much in global terms, but by Maltese standards it’s a veritable tsunami.

To place this victory into some kind of perspective, barely 5,000 votes separated the political divide the last time a ruling party in Malta was deposed after a long stint in power, back in 1987. More surprising was that such a slender margin came at the end of a dark period in contemporary Maltese history – characterised by political violence, gerrymandering and the demagoguery of the volatile Dom Mintoff. It is perhaps ironic that Labour was on the losing side back then.

In the years that followed, Malta was transformed. The Christian Democrat Nationalist Party (PN) led by Eddie Fenech Adami brought calm to the local political scene and restored international relations with Western countries after Mintoff’s flirtations with the East, as well as North Korea and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Under successive PN administrations, the tiny island in the centre of the Mediterranean went from being a nation stuck in the past to a fully liberalised economy – with all the benefits that brought with it. Fenech Adami’s crowning glory was securing EU membership after winning a referendum in 2003, while his successor, Lawrence Gonzi, took Malta into the European single currency five years later.

The contrast in Labour’s fortunes could not have been more marked. After making a catastrophic decision to oppose EU membership, the party was on a slippery slope to oblivion. And when it elected a 34-year-old MEP as its leader in 2008, there still seemed to be no obvious way back for this forlorn party. No one believed Joseph Muscat when he promised an earthquake upon winning a bitter leadership battle and his seemingly presumptuous remark about “looking forward to being Prime Minister when I am 39” was met with derision. The party was divided and pretty much a laughing stock. There was no way, critics said, that this baby-faced former journalist could turn things around – let alone lead the party to electoral victory.

While Muscat set about slowly but surely putting his party’s house in order and proving his doubters wrong, the Gonzi-led Nationalist Party began to run out of steam. More ominously, the party was showing signs of imploding. Divorce – not permissible in Malta due to the historical political influence of the Catholic church and staunchly opposed by the PN – was propelled onto the agenda after a private members bill was tabled by a rebel Nationalist MP.

Unable to deal with this affront because his party only had a slender one-seat majority, Gonzi opted to hold a referendum in 2011. At the end of a bad-natured campaign, the yes vote won the day, embarrassing the Prime Minister. He compounded the situation by voting against the bill in parliament, citing his deeply held Catholic beliefs. The move sparked anger among the electorate. It also proved futile as Labour backed the bill along with several Nationalist MPs who believed they could not go against popular opinion. Spurred on by his personal defeat, a handful of PN backbenchers believed they could hold the Prime Minister to ransom and manufactured scenarios aimed at discrediting the party.

All the while, Muscat, who for long periods needed to be no more than a spectator of the opera-like tragedy unfolding before him, waited in the wings. He glued disparate elements of his party together and shamelessly waved the EU flag. Meanwhile, he brutally exploited every mistake made by the PN and honed in on popular sentiment, which he used as a basis for policy proposals. Muscat pledged to lower water and electricity rates – a bugbear with a large portion of the Maltese electorate despite the fact that the island’s economy was weathering the economic crisis better than most EU states – and eliminate the cronyism that had become associated with a party which had been in government for so long. He launched a vigorous electoral campaign with a resonant battle cry: “Malta is for everyone”, not just for the favoured few, and he promised meritocracy – much like Fenech Adami had done back in 1987. His moment of glory arrived on 9 March of last year, when he romped to the biggest election victory in Malta’s post-independence history.

However, no sooner had the ink dried on his oath of allegiance than Muscat threw his meritocracy promise out of the window. Overnight he sacked practically all members of government boards with PN sympathies, appointing in their place people who had supported him, and he dispensed with the services of a number of permanent secretaries.

He also got into hot water with the EU, first by mooting a push-back policy for migrants who make the highly perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, then by insisting Maltese hunters should have a right to shoot birds in spring when this issue had been dealt with during Malta’s pre-accession negotiations; and he raised their ire further when he proposed a cash-for-citizenship scheme.

It was not only Brussels that was unhappy with the so-called Individual Investor Programme proposal – the Maltese, too, expressed outrage at the idea that their country’s passports could be sold for as little as €650,000. Muscat was forced to backtrack on two of the issues. Though his criticism of the EU for failing to share the burden of the migration problem was considered justified, he ceased all talk of sending them back and adopted a more humanitarian tone instead.

Meanwhile, he hammered out a deal on the citizenship scheme with Brussels, which forced him to introduce a residency requirement. He is still pushing for spring hunting in an effort to please what he considers to be an important section of the electorate, though he is likely to get short shrift from his European counterparts.

Yet the Muscat government has remained popular at home. Its can-do attitude has been praised by investors and it projects that the country will net millions in revenue from the citizenship scheme. The economy has also remained on an even keel. Growth exceeds 2.5 per cent while the deficit is just under the EU’s three per cent of GDP threshold. Meanwhile, the government has honoured its pledge to reduce water and electricity bills by as much as 25 per cent, even though its plans to build a gas facility at the site of Malta’s main power station remain hazy and controversial.

The government has also attacked several problem areas, including justice and education, while continuing to promote itself as a champion of minority rights at the Nationalist Party’s expense. Labour introduced a civil unions bill earlier this year, which permits gay marriage in all but name and also, controversially, allows child adoption by gay couples. The governing party immediately reaped electoral dividends from this move in May’s European Parliament elections – especially after the PN, now under the leadership of former MEP Simon Busuttil, took a common stand to abstain – as it once again trounced the opposition party at the polls with another 30,000-plus majority.

He might not remain at the helm for a quarter of a century, but the feeling is that, bar some major calamity, Joseph Muscat will be in office for some years to come.

About the author:

Steve Mallia is editor-in-chief of the Times of Malta


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