The Malta Independent 2 December 2023, Saturday
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The cult of the strongman

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 29 January 2023, 09:09 Last update: about 11 months ago

Robert Abela is adopting the habits of dictators. His tolerance for rampant ministerial abuse, his intolerance for journalists, his degrading treatment of irregular migrants and his determined assault on what’s left of our institutions are characteristic of strongman politicians.

Our democracy is young and fragile. It re-sprouted after the oppressive eighties, watered with people’s blood and tears. For twenty five years our democracy grew.  Now the direction of travel has turned.  Our freedoms are being eroded. Our rights, not least the right to information, are denied.  We’re in a democratic recession which deepens by the day.  For that, one man is to blame - Robert Abela.


In “The Age of the Strongman”, Gideon Rachman argues that autocratic politicians are identified by four key characteristics.  1. Creation of a cult personality. 2. Contempt for the rule of law, institutions, the media. 3. Their claim to represent the people against the establishment. 4. Their politics of nationalism and antimigrant rhetoric.

Abela ticks all those boxes. His rejection of democracy is evident.  In the words of another autocrat, Turkish President Erdogan, Abela sees democracy “like a tram that you ride until you get to your destination”.

After Joseph Muscat’s toxicity and precipitous fall, Abela’s ascent was a breath of fresh air. His youth and energy, his early positive moves instilled hope that the country would close another black chapter in its history. He swiftly removed the Police Commissioner.  He ordered Caruana Galizia’s memorial to be left untouched. He forced out Chris Cardona and withdrew the party whip from Konrad Mizzi. With every bold move Abela soothed the nation’s jangly nerves.

Behind our backs the former Commissioner was being rewarded with a consultancy.  So was Konrad Mizzi. Abela was rewarding Joseph Muscat with an exorbitant payoff and the use of government offices paid by the state.

Like many strongmen, Abela was mistaken for a moderate.  Naive predictions that he would undo Muscat’s damage were just wishful thinking.

Abela worked assiduously to construct his personality cult. His control over the party media and the national press grew stronger. He steadily replaced Muscat loyalists with his own, tightening his grip. By election time, the party manifesto was emblazoned with a full page image of the smiling leader. Each page was stamped with Abela’s personal webpage But clicking on it directed you straight to The message was clear.  Robert Abela will remain prime minister. Election was futile.

In classical dictator style, the interests of the strongman merged with those of the state. The party, the state and the leader are one. That fusion was clearest in Labour’s Mayday 2022 celebratory mass meeting.  The platform was an extension of Castille.  The seat of the nation’s prime minister belonged to the party.   Cameras focused on Abela, emerging from the open door of Castille.

Abela’s victory, eclipsing that of Muscat, emboldened him.  His authority was now absolute. Nobody opposed him, no-one dissented. Not even Muscat’s loyalists, whom Abela ruthlessly snubbed, resisted.  Even Jason Micallef had to go quietly, expelled from his ONE empire.

Abela’s autocratic traits quickly surfaced. His contempt for the rule of law, the institutions and the press was clear. His anti-deadlock mechanism proves it.  If the law prevents him doing what he likes, he’ll change it. He wants a compliant Commissioner who won’t expose his unruly bunch. He’s determined to install a man demonstrably unfit for the role, whatever it takes.

His MCAST bill transforms MCAST into the personal fiefdom of the minister with powers to expel Board members and academics at will - even for merely being “disruptive”.

Abela feels he’s above the law and the institutions. He steadfastly ignored all 35 Ombudsman’s reports. He intimidated the magistrate who ordered the search at Joseph Muscat’s home. He set Glenn Bedingfield on former Commissioner George Hyzler.  He got his civil service chief Mario Cutajar to publicly berate the Ombudsman. He threatened the Caruana Galizia board he would cut the inquiry short. He directed his MPs to disrupt proceedings at the Public Accounts and parliamentary standards committees. Repeatedly, sessions had to be suspended.  Opposition MPs were prevented asking questions.  Labour MPs protected Paul Apap Bologna and Konrad Mizzi.

Abela failed to declare his income. He submitted his asset declarations late.  His government resists freedom of information requests. It uses taxpayers’ money to challenge the Data commissioner’s rulings. Abela personally accused the Times of “colluding with Peregin at Costa coffee” and refused to answer questions about his “small plot” in Zabbar. He accused the media of “inventing stories”.

Now his power has gone to his head. He capriciously pushed the abortion bill.  He knew he didn’t have his party’s support. But he wanted to demonstrate his omnipotence. Like Putin invading Ukraine.  He didn’t have to do it. But did it anyway to show nobody could stop him and that he’d stop at nothing. Ukraine’s blown up in his face.  That abortion bill is Abela’s Ukraine.

Dissent and opposition are now surfacing within his own party. His authority is weakened. His gamble to quash all resistance failed, dismally. Evarist Bartolo is openly critical of Abela, or as openly as Bartolo’s cryptic posts could ever be.

Now it’s not just abortion. It’s Comino. MEP Agius Saliba is publicly heaping scorn on the plan. Alfred Sant is at it too, mocking the decision to have a Gozo runway. Evarist even abandoned his vague language and is talking straight. He’s inciting people to “express their frustration” and support NGOs who oppose Abela’s plans for bungalows in Comino. Labour’s Coleiro Preca is making public speeches against Abela.  Even President George Vella can’t take it.

The strongman’s invincibility has gone. Like Putin, Abela’s ground is melting under his feet. The unthinkable is happening. Labour is publicly voicing dissent.

We should heed Gideon Rachman’s warning: Strongmen rule an inherently flawed and unstable government that will ultimately collapse but there may be a lot of turmoil and suffering before the age of the strongmen is finally consigned to history.

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