Robert Abela did not have the smoothest of inductions as prime minister. He was left to pick up the pieces of a government that imploded in the wake of the shocking revelations surrounding Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Just three months later, the pandemic hit and Malta went into partial lockdown. That was followed by Malta’s FATF greylisting and a war which sparked unprecedented inflation.

Abela and his team overcame those challenges admirably. Rule of law reforms were passed, the country exited the grey list and it emerged from the pandemic better-placed than many other neighbouring countries.

Abela went on to win a general election two years ago in another Labour landslide.

But, just like Lady Macbeth’s infamous plea “out, damned spot”, the Labour government found itself grappling with the stain of corruption left by the hospitals’ deal.

The prime minister had plenty of time to prepare for a statesman-like response to the past week’s events. Instead, he adopted a worrying shift in tone and tactics.

The press conference he called on Monday afternoon – as news started trickling out about Joseph Muscat and others facing criminal charges – was a car crash in slow motion, an exercise of how not to act prime ministerial.

All media outlets had to rely on sources to report the story. There was no official statement from the attorney general or the police force. Abela had the opportunity to lay out the facts, explain what would happen next and explain how his government intended to handle the situation.

But, instead of a prime minister, we got a criminal lawyer representing the Labour Party.

Just like Lady Macbeth’s infamous plea 'out, damned spot', the Labour government found itself grappling with the stain of corruption left by the hospitals’ deal

Abela decided to cast shadows on the judiciary and the institutions, branding critical voices as the “establishment”. Of course, Abela is well within his rights to have his doubts about the timing of the inquiry release. He is perfectly entitled to be dissatisfied with the way the inquiry was carried out.

But it is hugely irresponsible to use his national pulpit to air those views and to condition voters – and potential jurors – before any of the details are known, just to protect his own.

Abela had an opportunity to provide clarity and reassurance to a country in front of the press last Monday but instead lashed out at imaginary enemies.

He claimed he did not see the magisterial inquiry but repeatedly drilled holes in it. He downplayed its importance and said the criminal court has the final say. He never offered reassurance that he will uphold the rule of law.

Journalists asking legitimate questions were branded as part of the “establishment”, in an attempt to sway the narrative. Looking uncomfortable and almost incoherent, at one point he said the European elections were as important as a general election, clearly indicating that, ultimately, we have a government that believes crimes can be eradicated by popular mandate.

By sowing seeds of doubt and painting critical voices as enemies of the State, Abela risks eroding public trust in the very institutions meant to safeguard democratic norms. Even Muscat, in November 2019 in the midst of the Daphne murder crisis, kept his composure during a 3am press conference as he watched his government crumble.

Malta has been shamed internationally because of the Panama Papers, the assassination of a journalist and the FATF greylisting. That is why it desperately needs strong leadership, especially one that does not attack the judiciary, NGOs and journalists. That is what authoritarians do.

The last thing Malta needs is a prime minister who thinks popular mandates give him carte blanche to prioritise partisan expediency over the principles of democracy.

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