The Malta Independent 16 May 2021, Sunday

The battle for Labour’s soul

Noel Grima Sunday, 11 April 2021, 09:20 Last update: about 2 months ago

We are living in anomalous times. A year before the next election (assuming it is held on time, whether we are out of the pandemic or not)  the party in government seems in doubt how it can come up with a credible offering to get people to believe in it.

Of course, being in harness should help it retain enough from its massive surplus in 2017 to see it emerge victorious once again.


The party leader, the prime minister, is still relatively new, having been in power for just over a year.

But he has had to face two massive crises that each could see his majority unravel.

The Covid crisis is breaking the backs of far bigger administrations and even now after three or more waves we cannot say we have turned a corner and recovery is just a step ahead or so.

Despite the many promises that are continually made, many countries are still in lockdown, travel between countries especially by air is at historic lows and trade is lower than thought possible.

All countries have made mistakes in tackling this unprecedented crisis. All say they have learnt from their mistakes. But so far, especially in Europe, we cannot speak of a country that has found the philosopher’s stone and thus created a template for other countries to follow.

Robert Abela came to government before Covid struck and he was in general a novice to government. From Day One he had to hit the ground running and the mistakes he made are the mistakes of a novice. Then he multiplied his novice mistakes by a series of verbal exaggerations the other side of insanity.

In a country given to partisan speculation, rumours he and his deputy were not seeing eye-to-eye bedevilled his days and undermined the way the country judged him.  

Then the infections began, and the deaths.

Restrictions and lockdowns followed, amid great discussions in the country.

Abela was a weak leader and he was unsupported by some ministers who are even weaker than him. The airport was reopened before the country was ready and the tourism establishment pushed for massive reopening. Abela has now moved most of these ministers.

So did other competitor countries and even then the season was not saved. But at least, these countries could fall back on internal tourism which is practically inexistent here and cannot sustain the huge tourism infrastructure. And they have a more solid manufacturing base.

Then the spikes rose with the coming of autumn and the second wave was here and the hospitals were overwhelmed.

Then people began to hang their hopes on the vaccine, even before one was created and tested. And then came the controversies on who should have been vaccinated first. We are still in this phase.

This Covid crisis has seriously undermined Abela’s standing in the country. Obviously, the Opposition makes sure the country gets to know any mistakes the government has made, at least as they see it.

But Covid was not the only crisis Abela had to face. He came to power following the crisis which brought his predecessor down, the crisis we can loosely identify with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the rot she uncovered in the country and its governance.

This crisis is still unfolding and we cannot see how it will end. For all the Sturm und Drang, proceedings are still ongoing – some have not even begun. One awaits the conclusions of the multiple cases in court.

Even so, it is still early to see if these developments will affect the way Labour supporters look on the government. In 2017, for all the accusations of corruption, Labour went on to register the best result ever.

But there may be developments here. In the past days, former president Marie-Louise Coleiro-Preca wrote that the Labour Party must apologise to the people for all the corruption that has been allowed to flourish in the country.

Whatever her intentions, she did not cause any dent in the Labour support. On the contrary, she was attacked from two unlikely sources.

Former PN MP Franco Debono, a political pundit in his own right, went back to the crisis which saw Wenzu Mintoff and Toni Abela leave the party as a protest against the corruption within the party in the early 1990s and when Coleiro Preca was secretary of the party and asked if she did not smell the corruption then.

And Mark Camilleri, the former book committee head, said his Labour credentials are still strong but that does not impede him from protesting against the rot.

These are just two swallows in the spring air. As the country awaits the results of the latest polls, the next election could be still up for grabs.


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