The Malta Independent 26 September 2020, Saturday

5 reasons why Chris Fearne lost

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 19 January 2020, 10:30 Last update: about 9 months ago

The race for the Labour Party leadership was won by Robert Abela, for many a surprise winner against the more experienced Chris Fearne. Now that the dust has settled, and Abela has also taken on the reins as Malta’s Prime Minister, Stephen Calleja takes a look at what went right for Abela in the campaign and what went wrong for Fearne.

1.     Chris Fearne’s campaign was geared for the post of Prime Minister, rather than for the Labour leadership. He made the mistake of thinking he was already in Castille, and so spoke “like a (potential) Prime Minister”, and “not like a (potential) Labour leader”. The way he spoke was appealing to the average Maltese voter, including Nationalist supporters and the so-called floating voters, who saw in him the possibility of a change of mentality, and hoped that Fearne would have washed away all that was wrong with the Muscat administration. But it was not appealing to the Labour members, those who had the right to vote, who saw Fearne as a threat to what (in their minds) Muscat has built. With hindsight, he should have kept his intentions private, and only speak and take action after winning the leadership election. Just as Abela is doing, at least so far.

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2.     One statement Fearne made that did not go down well at all with Labour supporters was that the damage that had been caused to Malta’s reputation was “irreparable”. That admission, although welcomed by non-Labourites, severely dented his chances. The Labour voter saw it as too identical to what the Nationalist adversaries have been saying since Muscat took over. Labour voters do not believe that Joseph Muscat’s inaction on rule of law matters caused damage to Malta. Labour voters believe that it is the Nationalist Party and/or its exponents, together with the media, that put Malta in bad light. That is the mantra they have been told to follow. And so hearing Fearne say – right in the middle of the storm that hit the country before Christmas – that the harm caused to Malta was “irreparable” was tantamount to him saying “I agree with the PN”. And Labour voters do not forgive something like that.

3.     In his campaign launch, the first point that Fearne made was make a proposal to have a national conference to debate the rule of law. He understood that the country needs a new beginning in this respect; and in others too. He also wanted to change the way a police commissioner is appointed, giving the opposition a say in the matter. Both were good ideas for the unblinkered part of the population. He might now be regretting having made such bold statements before the election. It was welcomed by that bigger part of the population which had no right to vote in the Labour leadership proceedings. But it must have started to ring alarm bells among the PL top tiers, as it could have meant that there were some who thought they were in for some hard times. Their thoughts percolated to the grassroots, and Fearne lost support.

4.     When Fearne made that comment about not wanting to see another PN government until he dies and that, when he did die, he wanted to see the words RIPN written on his tombstone, he came across as a Labour hardliner. But then he backtracked, saying that the comment should be taken tongue-in-cheek and he also wrote what can be interpreted as an apology for what he said. Again, this about-face did not go down well with the Labour voters. In their mind, a good leader should never apologise for offending the political adversaries. If anything, he should increase the dose. That is the Labour way of thinking, and Fearne was punished.

5.     As Deputy PM, Fearne kept his distance from Muscat. Long before the crisis that led to Muscat’s resignation developed, talk that Fearne and Muscat did not see eye-to-eye on many matters – including the way Muscat handled the Konrad Mizzi-Keith Schembri scandal and how he (Muscat) continued to ignore calls for him to take action against them – was no big secret. This worked against Fearne among Labour members, who see Muscat as their political god, and whom they lifted higher than their first political saviour Dom Mintoff in their personal list of heroes. Fearne was not seen as an enemy to Muscat, but neither was he seen as a friend, and Muscat’s direct and indirect influence was crucial to the Labour voters in their choice of his successor.

5 reasons why Robert Abela won

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