The Malta Independent 8 May 2021, Saturday

Is corruption enough to defeat Labour?

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 18 April 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 19 days ago

We are edging closer to the time when Prime Minister Robert Abela will be calling an election.

Labour’s second consecutive five-year term is set to end, give or take, in one year and the people will be asked to decide whether to give the PL a third victory or shift the onus of running the country to the Nationalist Party.

Surveys in the past months have shown that the PL is still comfortably ahead, but the PN has narrowed the gap. Still, we all know that the situation remains volatile and in the time that remains until polling day developments could lead to further changes, either way, in the people’s voting patterns.

ADVERTISEMENT

After all, surveys give just an indication. It is only an election, and what people say with their vote, that counts. We’ve seen it many times, not only in Malta, that the outcome of elections or referenda went against what was being said in surveys held before.

This time round, in determining the election date the prime minister will have to take something else into consideration when compared to his predecessors – the Covid-19 pandemic. It is likely that he will wait until the pandemic is over, or at least (really) under control to pick the day.

Since there will be the statutory five weeks of election campaigning, the decision will come with its risks too, given that we have seen Covid-19 numbers rising or going down sharply between one week and another. A five-week period is therefore much more difficult to calculate.

Setbacks

Apart from the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the biggest setback to the Labour government has been the level of corruption that has taken place under its administration. Some of these cases were first to be highlighted by the journalist before she was killed. But it is only in recent months, long after the Bidnija car bomb, that people have been arrested and charged in court.

To be fair to Robert Abela, these cases took place under the leadership of Joseph Muscat, although it must also be pointed out that Abela acted as Muscat’s consultant for some years when the latter was PM. Abela is now facing the consequences of the culture of impunity that was allowed to grow and fester under Muscat.

The arrest of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri last month could be just the tip of the iceberg, as magisterial inquiries continue and police keep up their investigations into other serious allegations. Testimonies being given in court could lead to further police work and more arraignments.

Labour can boast of giving the country a solid economic base, which came in handy when the Covid-19 crisis hit, but the level of corruption and the number of scandals that emerged under its (Muscat’s) watch is too much to ignore.

Abela was elected as Labour leader last year basing his campaign on the element of continuity, as against the “new chapter” that was being pushed by his leadership rival Chris Fearne. He has since changed tack and has desperately tried to distance himself from Muscat’s six-and-a-half-year rule. He has often defended himself by saying that the scandals that continue to make the headlines today happened under Muscat, and that the consequences being faced by the alleged perpetrators are a strong sign that the country’s institutions are functioning properly.

The Nationalist Party hits back saying that there is little difference between Muscat and Abela, and that the institutions have a long way to go before it can be said that they are doing their full duties. It says that Abela has proven to be too weak and Muscat’s shadow still hangs over him, depriving him of the liberty to act as one should if he were free from links to the previous premier.

The people

The Labour government has cleverly kept the people happy with goodies it has dished out.

It has presented consecutive budgets without new taxes. Not even the price of cigarettes and alcohol, usually introduced without any backlash, was increased. It upped pensions and added extra days to vacation leave. It handed cheques in income tax refunds, and gave out vouchers for people to spend during the Covid-19 pandemic, promising more of the same when the situation returns to normal. It has paid parts of salaries since the Covid-19 pandemic started. It has given grants, allowances and other benefits, especially to people at the lower end of the social scale.

In other words, it has played on people’s emotions. The cynics interpret it as a vote-catching exercise.

When people are asked what irritates them the most, many would reply that they would like more money to spend, or perhaps save. The Labour government knows this, and so by occasionally – some would say regularly – giving hand-outs it keeps the people happy.

Few voters would mention corruption as being a problem the country must deal with. It’s almost as if it is taken for granted and does not concern them. So long as money is in their pockets, and they continue to live peacefully, many would never lift a finger to fight against corruption. They do not realise that corruption is eating away into the country’s coffers.

The arraignment of Schembri could actually work in Labour’s favour. The argument some are making is that his arrest means that the government is doing its duty, and not looking at faces. So why should people continue to complain that nothing is being done to combat corruption, they say.

Voting patterns

Labour diehards will not abandon the party they belong to just because one or more persons they had considered as being heroes has been caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

PL supporters, publicly or privately, still say that Muscat was a victim of the machinations of people around him, and that he genuinely did not know what was taking place. They are prepared to denounce Schembri and Co. but would never stop defending Muscat, the man they put on the same pedestal with their other saviour, Dom Mintoff.

Their line of reasoning is that, under Labour, they lead a good life, and so they would never bite the hand that is (literally) feeding them. For them, Labour will always be the better option, even if it is tainted by corruption. History has shown us that, whether it is a harsh battle with the church (1960s) or a strong element of violence (1980s), Labour’s grassroots will never abandon the party.

Yet, in spite of its strong voter-base, this is not enough to guarantee an electoral victory for Labour. The PL still requires that a substantial chunk of the so-called floating voters chooses Labour candidates to win the election.

The floaters

So, as always, it will ultimately be the floaters – people who sway in between parties depending on their mood – who will decide the outcome of the election. The PN itself has its own, smaller voter-base which is also not enough to determine a winner.

The number of floating voters seems to grow with every election, particularly among the younger population, which is not always prepared to follow in the footsteps of their family.

It must be noted that so many things have happened since the last election in 2017. Muscat, then still Labour leader and PM, was at the time still defending Schembri and continued to insist that he and the rest had done nothing wrong. Accusations which have now been made in the courts of law were being vehemently denied by the people involved four years ago. There were still too many doubts on the outcome of magisterial inquiries and police investigations for them to have an impact on the way people voted. This is probably one of the reasons why Muscat had called an election a year earlier than scheduled, and won it handsomely.

Now, things are much clearer. Although the presumption of innocence must always be kept in mind, that the police felt there is enough evidence to arraign Muscat’s right hand man and others around him should have an effect on the way people think. There is still one year to go for the election to take place, and there could be other developments in the corruption saga.

Let us also not forget that it was just four months after the 2017 election that Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered. The slain journalist had been the first to expose happenings that are now before the courts. Many had not believed her and when the people voted four years ago not enough had then been known. But she was assassinated for her investigations, and since that fateful 16 October, the wheels of justice started to turn.

Labour is still to face the electorate in a general election after this heinous crime. Now that so much more is known about corruption and why Caruana Galizia was assassinated, and that what she was writing about has now, belatedly, led to arrests and arraignments, how will the floating voters react?

Is the corruption which is being uncovered enough to sway their vote?

Time will tell but, given the way the average voter thinks, it looks highly unlikely.

 

  • don't miss