The Malta Independent 29 February 2020, Saturday

5 reasons why Robert Abela won

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 19 January 2020, 10:30 Last update: about 2 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.  Robert Abela’s campaign was for the Labour Party leadership, not for the post of Prime Minister. He understood, more than his rival Chris Fearne did, that before occupying the seat in Castille he needed first to win the office in Hamrun. And so he based his campaign on pleasing the Labour hardcore, many of whom had the right to vote in the election. He appeased them with words they wanted to hear. He spoke to Labourites, not to the Maltese.  He addressed the Labour voters’ preoccupations, not those of the Maltese people in general. Labour members felt closer to him than they did to Fearne, simply because they saw him first as party leader, and only second as Prime Minister. The party, for many Labourites, comes before the country.


2.  Joseph Muscat was behind Robert Abela. At least, the people close to Muscat were. Ironically, Muscat had beaten Abela’s father George in the 2008 Labour leadership election. But we all know that one day in politics is a lifetime, let alone 12 years. Muscat saw in Abela a better possibility towards continuity (even though some decisions that have already been taken go directly opposite to Muscat’s administration – such as the idea not to clear the Great Siege national monument from the candles and flowers placed in remembrance of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the police commissioner’s resignation). There were no public declarations of endorsement by Muscat. But in the few times that Muscat spoke publicly between the day he announced his resignation and the election, his words were closer to Abela’s philosophy. In private, it is a known fact that people close to Muscat were approaching the voters and telling them that it was only through Abela that Muscat’s legacy could be protected. With their vote, they wanted to safeguard what Muscat had created.

3.  The six-week campaign played in Abela’s favour. He started off as the “underdog” and kept on saying that he was not the favourite right till the end. This underdog tag was one way through which Abela indirectly communicated with the Labour voters. Muscat used the expression several times in his career, largely before the 2013 election but also, bizarrely, before the 2017 election when he had previously won the election with 36,000 votes. The Labour voters identified with that expression, and in their majority preferred Abela. He did start off as non-favourite, as the initial surveys showed, but six weeks were long enough for the necessary work to be carried out to convince the PL members to choose Abela.

4.  Abela behaved in a way that pleased Labour voters when he tackled the independent media and the higher social classes, against whom many Labourites bear a grudge. Abela refused interviews with certain sections of the media, where he could have been placed with his back against the wall; he only accepted to appear on media which are or are perceived to be pro-Labour, and there he was playing at home. His turning away from an event where he would have been asked questions by the business community was accepted, rather than scorned, by Labour voters. If, let’s say, a Nationalist Party candidate for the PN leadership shuns the media and avoids meeting the business community, a PN voter would turn against that politician. But Labourites have a different mindset. They cherish these moments when their heroes are seen to affront institutions they consider as their enemy.

5. Labourites were led to believe that Abela is a Joseph Muscat clone. Staunch Labourites idolise Muscat, and did not want him to go, in spite of all the bad decisions he took in the most important crossroads of both his stumped terms as head of government, including the way he protected Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. In Abela they saw the possibility that there would be a seamless transition, one that would not rock the boat, one that would keep things as they are, with the Nationalist Party safely in opposition and a Labour Party still in charge and with better chances to win a third consecutive term.

5 reasons why Chris Fearne lost


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