The Malta Independent 17 January 2020, Friday

PL leadership: It is Fearne vs Abela

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 8 December 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

Robert Abela has defied suggestions of a one-horse-race for the leadership of the Labour Party and said he is throwing in his hat, challenging the current deputy leader Chris Fearne for the top place in the Party and with it the office in Castille.

It is known that efforts have been made to contain the fallout from the resignation of Joseph Muscat by having a transfer of power that creates the least possible friction in a Party that is already suffering the consequences of the forced election of Joseph Muscat, announced in the wake of investigations linking his office to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

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Muscat is prolonging the suffering of a government and party in crisis by announcing that he will go in January, despite calls from all quarters for him to go now. It has already been a week since Muscat – under great pressure to leave as the country’s international reputation plummeted to unprecedented levels – said he was giving up, but he is still there.

As businessmen complain that sales are still low, and constituted bodies insist that the situation must be rectified before more harm is done, now there will be a competition – which will last more than a month – to have his successor in place, extending the uncertainty over the Christmas period which is normally a time when people spend more on gifts and entertainment.

The idea to have one candidate to contest the leadership was floated as a way of limiting the growing damage to the Party and reducing instability. There was even the possibility that if only one candidate had submitted a nomination, the Party’s General Congress to endorse that candidate would have been brought forward to before Christmas, ending the current impasse before the turkey, roast potatoes and mince pies are placed on the table.

But it was not to be and, judging by Abela’s own outburst on Friday – when he launched an attack against what he described as an attempt to seal a diabolical pact – it was clear that the son of former President George Abela, who was also a former deputy leader of the PL, had already made up his mind to contest.

The diabolical pact to which Abela was referring can only be news reports of a deal that was supposed to see Fearne installed as Leader of the Party, with Ian Borg taking his place as deputy.

Both Fearne and Abela cleverly kept their distance from the entire Panama Papers scandal from the time it broke in 2016, all the way through to the recent implosion that rocked the foundations of the government – and the PL.

With Muscat heavily involved through the implications surrounding his office, and with Labour’s second deputy, Chris Cardona, also among those questioned in the investigation – so much so that he temporarily suspended himself – Fearne was the only one of the top three to remain unscathed. The Vitals deal through which three public hospitals were transferred to the private sector was not reached with him as Health Minister.

Abela kept a very low profile after being elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, even reportedly rejecting the Prime Minister’s offer to be named as Parliamentary Secretary. Instead, he was appointed to the role of the PM’s personal legal consultant.

It is likely that it will now be a two-horse race. Miriam Dalli, who obtained the largest ever number of votes for any Labour candidate in any MEP election, was the first to rule herself out of contention. Another possible candidate, Ian Borg, immediately endorsed Fearne’s candidacy as soon as it was announced on Friday, effectively saying that he is not interested in the job. Borg might be considering taking Fearne’s place as Deputy Leader, if Fearne moves a step up.

The game now begins.

Fearne seems to enjoy a better standing among members of the Cabinet, largely because he has vast experience in politics and has already climbed high in the Party and government echelons. His non-involvement in any scandals that have hit the government frees him from any blemishes that have stained it, even though some will say that he could have done more to root out the bad weeds in the Muscat government.

Abela’s lack of experience may work against him, but he has strong support among the grassroots of the Party and he has been given a number of government consultancies, which have been criticised by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler.

Nominations for the election to replace Muscat will open on Monday, 9 December and close on Wednesday, 11th December, according to a statement released by the Electoral Commission of the Labour Party last Wednesday. A general conference is set for Monday, 6th and Tuesday, 7th January. If more than two candidates apply, a first round of voting will be held on 7 January, with two candidates going through to a second round of voting held during the Members’ Congress. The Congress, according to the statement, will be held on the 10th, 11th and 12th January and voting by eligible members will take place on the 11th.

 

 

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