The Malta Independent 15 July 2024, Monday
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Stick or twist: Abela may be plotting second reshuffle this year

Albert Galea Sunday, 23 June 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 20 days ago

With the dust settling on last week’s European Parliament and local council elections, the big question now is quite simple: how will Robert Abela respond to the results?

Labour Party officials stood by stunned on 9 June in the Naxxar Counting Hall as the gap between PL and the Nationalist Party fell from 42,656 votes, five years prior, to just 8,454 votes. The party lost the support of the majority of the people as it registered 45.26% of the votes in its favour – its worst result on record.

The PL was left fearing the worst for the results of the local council elections which were to be counted later in the week. As it transpired, the party won the overall election by 20,255 votes – down from 47,116 five years ago – but still lost control of a number of important localities.

The local councils of Mosta, San Gwann, Siggiewi, St Paul’s Bay and Msida are now led by the PN, while the councils of Birkirkara, Floriana, Mellieha and Zebbug all now have no majority party leading them.

Some would be seen as a natural reverse of an extraordinary result five years ago, but others not so much. For example, the last time the PN won Msida was in 2003, while the PL has never lost a majority in Zebbug before.

Still, the simple fact is that in terms of votes, the result was not as bad as the PL initially feared after the European Parliament results the weekend before. That will have eased pressure on the now potentially embattled Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Robert Abela. But questions still remain.

Chief among those questions will be how the Prime Minister responds to the electoral result, and whether one of the first steps of that response will be to reshuffle and “renew”, as he would no doubt put it, his Cabinet.


Potentially the second reshuffle of the year

Past history has shown that Abela can be ruthless when it comes to Cabinet reshuffles. He caught everyone off guard at the start of the year when he announced a reshuffle which saw Aaron Farrugia – once a holder of some of the most significant ministerial portfolios – binned entirely from Cabinet.

Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi was also given a smaller ministerial portfolio, while Chris Bonett was promoted to Minister and Glenn Bedingfield, Omar Farrugia and Malcolm Paul Agius Galea were appointed as parliamentary secretaries.

It was the first time that Bonett had been made a minister, and the first time that Farrugia and Agius Galea were appointed to Cabinet.

Chris Fearne also had his portfolio shifted from Health to EU Funds, but the government signalled its intention to formally nominate him to be Malta’s next European Commissioner six months later, after the European elections had passed.

But a lot has changed since then: Fearne was one of a myriad of people criminally charged in connection with the hospitals’ inquiry, and as a result he resigned as deputy prime minister and insisted that his nomination as European Commissioner be withdrawn.

Despite Abela’s best efforts to convince him otherwise, Fearne stood his ground. That, therefore, leaves Abela with at least two vacancies to fill – deputy prime minister and Malta’s next European commissioner.


Will there be a new deputy prime minister, and if so who will it be?

Since Fearne tendered his resignation from the position now just over five weeks ago, Abela has not filled the role of deputy prime minister.

It’s important to note that constitutionally, he is not bound to do so. This means that as such, there is no need for there to be somebody formally appointed as deputy prime minister. It would be unconventional – at least insofar as the last 11 years of the PL’s government is concerned – for Abela to go without a deputy, though.

As things stand today, Owen Bonnici has been handed the role of the Leader of the House of Representatives. It’s a position which Fearne previously held in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister, and means that Bonnici is the person responsible for setting Parliament’s agenda.

Bonnici is also listed as the most senior member of Cabinet. That means that when the Prime Minister is abroad, Bonnici is the one who – right now – assumes his duties. It’s not necessarily a new thing for him: Bonnici used to take on this mantle when both Abela and Fearne happened to be abroad at the same time.

Should Abela choose to fill the role of deputy prime minister, it will be interesting to see who he selects. The position would give an additional layer of gravitas to whoever it is bestowed upon, which is why Abela may be keen to use it to strengthen the profile of a strong ally. Within the context of there being some post-election jitters within the PL, it may be important for Abela to keep his allies closer than ever before.

Silvio Schembri is the primary name who springs to mind as fitting the bill. An ardent Abela ally, and somebody who has been in Parliament since 2013 and has been a member of Cabinet since 2017 first as a parliamentary secretary and then as Economy Minister from 2020 onwards, Schembri could be one of the leading names under consideration.

But all this could also depend on “party” matters. Fearne still holds the position of deputy leader for parliamentary affairs, which automatically put him as deputy PM. So the matter is rather convoluted.


Who will be Malta’s next European Commissioner?

Abela may not be obliged to appoint a deputy prime minister, but he will have to nominate somebody to serve as a European Commissioner.

Fearne – who was tipped for taking on the health portfolio given the respect he had in Europe, particularly over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – was the natural choice. But with him out of the running, there is speculation as to who could be nominated in his stead.

Blogger Mark Camilleri suggested that Owen Bonnici was set to be “rewarded” for his faith in Abela’s leadership by being offered the position. The incessant clearing up of the Daphne Caruana Galizia makeshift memorial while he was Justice Minister will make for some awkward and uncomfortable questions in the grilling associated with this position, despite Bonnici having later apologised.

There was speculation when Fearne announced that he wanted to be out of the running that Miriam Dalli would be nominated in his stead. She already has vast experience in the European spheres having served as an MEP between 2014 and 2020, when she returned to the country and was co-opted into Parliament.

Or else, Abela may be tempted to look further afield – away from his Cabinet. Names such as the experienced former Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo tend to spring up when making such considerations (although the latter’s criticism of the government diminishes his chances), but Abela may also look towards a technocrat who knows how to navigate the winding Brussels corridors.

Clint Azzopardi Flores, who was a PL candidate in the EP elections but wasn’t elected, may be floated as a suggestion, for instance, but it’s a doubt as to whether he would accept such a position particularly given his fundamental disagreements with how the European Commission itself has been run in the last five years.


What about the Cabinet?

This is perhaps the question of most local relevance: will Abela stick or will he twist?

The Prime Minister resisted taking any pre-election knee-jerk decisions when Fearne resigned from his ministerial portfolio – which was made up of EU Funds, Social Dialogue and Consumer Protection, instead opting to absorb those topics into his own office.

But with the election over, speculation is rife that Abela is plotting a reshuffle – his second in half a year.

Given how the PL’s lead evaporated in the European Parliament elections, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that if Abela were to make changes, they could be quite drastic.

His line since the vote has, after all, been that the PL needs to heed the electorate’s message, and that message is that the people want a government that is ready to change and that is ready to serve and not focus on clientelism.

What could that mean for the current Cabinet? The indications are that Housing Minister Roderick Galdes should be the one sweating the most.

He was embroiled in a voter fraud scandal just weeks before the country went to the polls, as 99 families were registered into a social housing block in the key battleground locality of Siggiewi, which hadn’t been finished yet. The country’s courts backed the PN when complaints were filed, and those registrations were reversed – leaving Galdes and the rest of the government with egg on their faces. A late-attempt by the PL to say that PN MEP candidate Peter Agius did the same thing with his own address fell flat: Agius was elected as one of Malta’s six MEPs.

It was reported that Galdes faced immense flak from the Prime Minister in the post-mortem parliamentary group meeting that followed the EP elections result. One would think that in the case of a reshuffle, his position would be under threat.

However, there are other ministers who are not in a good position.

Michael Falzon’s Social Affairs ministry was at the centre of a social benefits fraud scandal, with one of the men who is accused of facilitating the fraud testifying in court that he had been told by a ministerial official that as long as Falzon remained minister then they wouldn’t find any trouble in perpetuating the racket.

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo has been consistently under the microscope for over-spending in the film industry. The Film Commission – under his remit – remains obstinately against any form of transparency as well.

Julia Farrugia Portelli remains associated with having told people to “read a book” while suffering through incessant power cuts during summer heatwaves last year. That was evident when most of Malta plunged into darkness again just this week. She also received flak when she said that voters were “allergic” to PN leader Bernard Grech during the election campaign.

Maybe even Miriam Dalli’s post as Energy Minister could be under threat – especially if the near-nationwide blackout, which happened this week, were to repeat itself. Last summer’s long power cuts during heatwaves still lay very much on voters’ minds, as do the incessant roadworks – including on roads which would have just been finished – and their inconvenience that Enemalta’s distribution upgrades have required. A repeat of those power cuts this summer would continue to erode trust in the government’s competence.

Other more familiar faces such as Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo may be under threat just because Abela might simply want to change things up a bit and introduce new people into the mix.

Who could take their places? Recently promoted parliamentary secretaries Omar Farrugia and Malcolm Paul Agius Galea may get another promotion, but so could other parliamentary secretaries such as Alicia Bugeja Said, Keith Azzopardi Tanti and Rebecca Buttigieg. All of these were elected to Parliament for the first time in 2022.

That then could pave the way for more backbenchers to step up to Cabinet. MPs elected for the first time in 2022 such as Ray Abela, Cressida Galea, Amanda Spiteri Grech, Romilda Zarb, Davina Sammut Hili, Katya De Giovanni and Abigail Camilleri all have no role in Cabinet.

Randolph De Battista’s position is awkward. The partner of now former PL MEP Cyrus Engerer, De Battista is probably the PL’s most ideologically progressive MP. He was co-opted just days after the 2022 election, and was seen as being on Abela’s good books. But differences of opinion have emerged in recent days and these have strained their relationship.

Abela may then opt to re-introduce some older faces back into Cabinet. Aaron Farrugia, Carmelo Abela, Deo Debattista, Chris Agius and Alex Muscat are all former Cabinet members and are all currently sitting on the back benches. Such a decision wouldn’t necessarily be in line with Abela’s mantra for change, but familiar names may breed additional support in what could be a tough few months for the Prime Minister.

Either way, what’s for sure is that should he wish to make changes, Abela has no shortage of options from which to choose from. He has already made one decision, as he is set to promote backbencher Edward Zammit Lewis to the post of a judge in the general court of the European Union.

More decisions are expected to follow.


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