Malta’s former prime minister claimed the political spotlight in the 2024 European Parliament elections, albeit not for the reasons he wanted.

Joseph Muscat went from teasing his possible candidacy as an MEP to pleading “absolutely not guilty” in the hospital corruption case.

The conclusion of a years-long magisterial inquiry into the case at the start of the campaign in April set the tone for the rest of the way.

Muscat’s downfall may well have been a blessing in disguise for his successor Robert Abela.

Abela used Muscat’s arraignment on corruption charges to rally Labour’s hardcore vote, amid fears of a lacklustre turnout for the election.

A phantom enemy in the form of the “establishment”, supposedly hell-bent on toppling the government, became his campaign call.

The courts, the Opposition and certain sections of the media all form part of this establishment, Abela claimed while on the campaign trail.

Muscat wasn’t the only Labour politician to face justice.

Chris Fearne resigned as deputy prime minister in the early days of the campaign. Fearne, like Muscat, was charged over the hospital privatisation scandal, despite insisting he has never been implicated in it.

Chris Fearne, the Labour Party is proud of you- Robert Abela

“Chris Fearne, the Labour Party is proud of you,” Abela said during a campaign event.

In the days leading up to Muscat’s unprecedented arraignment, Abela appealed for calm, while keeping up the “us versus them” narrative.

He claimed the Nationalist Party was planning “a trap” on the day Muscat was to face justice.

“Do not fall for their provocation,” he warned.

The actual day of the ex-prime minister’s arraignment resembled a Labour rally.

Hundreds turned up outside the courts to support Muscat, along with former Labour stalwarts Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, who were also charged.

Although rowdy at times, fears that the election campaign would be marred by violence outside the courts proved to be overblown.

The criminal charges did not stop Labour MEP candidates from seeking Muscat’s endorsement.

Pressed by the media about whether these endorsements were appropriate, Abela argued that everyone, including Muscat, enjoys the right to the presumption of innocence.

European issues?

The elected candidates will be based in Brussels, but there were few debates on actual European issues, with the discussions often focusing on domestic matters, with the two main parties seeking to make inroads in what is essentially a mid-term election.

Abela urged supporters to persuade undecided voters to vote PL, saying this would also be a vote of confidence in him to carry out further reforms and move the country forward. 

Meanwhile, Bernard Grech warned that every vote that doesn’t go to the PN will go to the Labour Party’s “mafia” politics.

The Nationalist Party decried the government’s power of incumbency on several fronts, especially when cheques were sent to tens of thousands of Maltese households in what the government described as “recognition” of workers’ contributions to building Malta’s economy.

Robert Metsola’s visit to Israel last October led to accusations of ‘war mongering’. Photo: X/Roberta MetsolaRobert Metsola’s visit to Israel last October led to accusations of ‘war mongering’. Photo: X/Roberta Metsola

Metsola’s ‘warmongering’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the few international policy talking points during the campaign.

Labour accused PN’s lead candidate Robert Metsola, and the opposition as a whole, of “warmongering”.

Metsola was singled out for an October 2023 meeting she held in her capacity as European Parliament president with Israel’s head of state Isaac Herzog.

Abela claimed the meeting sent a signal that the European Union was green-lighting Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza.

Labour followed up the claims in the final days of the campaign with an advert containing brief clips of Metsola’s speeches, edited in a way to make it sound as though she is promoting war.

Metsola promptly accused the government of “hypocrisy” by not formally recognising Palestine when it had the chance to do so.

She, however, stopped short of endorsing Palestinian statehood herself.

Robert Abela and Bernard Grech facing off during the final debate. Photo: Matthew MirabelliRobert Abela and Bernard Grech facing off during the final debate. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The debate

The Palestine issue spilled over into the final debate between Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech.

Grech took Abela to task during the debate for failing to recognise Palestinian statehood.

The two party leaders went head to head in a tense debate organised by the Broadcasting Authority, trading barbs on competence, credibility and corruption.

Grech brought up the Palestine issue as he was rebutting repeated claims by Abela that the PN is intent on sending people to war.

Clarifying that the party has and continues to support the bolstering of defence infrastructure, he said it was hypocritical of Abela to accuse him as such when he himself had voted in favour of increasing defence spending in the EU.

“If we agree on the same things, you cannot say that we want war and you want peace. If we are in favour of increasing defence spending, so are you, we’re talking about the same thing,” he said.

The rise of the independents

Saturday’s election saw more independent candidates than ever face off in the race for one of Malta’s six MEP seats.

No fewer than 13 independent candidates entered the mix, together with another eight candidates from Malta’s smaller political parties.

This marked the first time in the history of Malta’s MEP elections that fewer than half the candidates on the ballot sheet will be from either of Malta’s two main parties.

One of the leading independent candidates, according to the polls, is former Greens leader Arnold Cassola.

There is an ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the two parties, who have occupied everything in this country. And a number of people are no longer ready to accept this arrogance- Independent candidate Arnold Cassola

Cassola’s assessment of the political situation is stark: “There is an ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the two parties, who have occupied everything in this country. And a number of people are no longer ready to accept this arrogance,” he said during the campaign.

Like Cassola, many of the independent candidates were at one point or another affiliated with a political party, before deciding to go it alone.

These included former Labour mayor Conrad Borg Manché and former PN MP Edwin Vassallo.

The campaign also featured a number of tongue-in-check candidates. These included comedian James Michael Muscat, better known by his stage name James Ryder, as well as Adrian Zammit, a social media personality best known for sharing his opinion on current affairs, while eating and drinking in his kitchen.

Ivan Grech Mintoff during his egg stunt at a university debate. Photo: Matthew MirabelliIvan Grech Mintoff during his egg stunt at a university debate. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Egged on

Ivan Grech Mintoff claims the honour of having started the election campaign as the leader of the fringe party ABBA and ending it as an ‘independent’ candidate.

He announced his departure from the right-wing religious political party during an MEP election debate organised by the Broadcasting Authority during the final week of the campaign.

Elaborating on his decision, he said that this came after the party’s secretary, Simon Elmer, tried to “sabotage” him by publicly chastising him for citing his role as ABBA leader in a judicial protest filed against the Broadcasting Authority.

As election ballot papers had already been printed, Grech Mintoff said he will still appear listed under ABBA, but appealed to the public to think of him as an independent candidate. 

Grech Mintoff recently made headlines for throwing eggs as a form of political protest, interrupting Robert Abela on stage in March and more recently during a university debate, where he also threw eggs during his allotted speaking time.

Those other elections

While the MEP elections are the ones grabbing the headlines, spare a thought for the 707 candidates who will be contesting for a seat on 68 local councils dotted around Malta and Gozo.

The Labour Party fielded the most council candidates, at 381, while the Nationalist Party put 292 people up for election.

These range from former ministers and MPs to 16-year-olds who want to prove to voters that despite their age, they can come up with new and innovative ideas to improve their localities and can do so while still furthering their studies.  

The local council elections marked the first time that 16-year-olds will not only be able to vote, but also become mayors and deputy mayors.

Labour’s youngest candidate is 16-year-old Andre Mizzi while the PN fielded the equally young Gabriel Borg Ferrando.

Unlike the MEP elections, results for the local council ballots will only be known later on in the week.

Vote-counting will take place over three days between Wednesday and Friday.

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