The majority of cabinet members say they support Joseph Muscat as a candidate for the European elections or would publicly support him, as the former prime minister mulls a political return.

Fifteen of the 26 cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries contacted by Times of Malta over the last two days confirmed they would welcome Muscat as a candidate if he decided to make a bid for the European Parliament in the June election. Not a single cabinet member expressed any disapproval for Muscat returning on the Labour ticket.

“Whichever way you look at it, this is Joseph’s victory,” said one Labour parliamentarian.

Whichever way you look at it, this is Joseph’s victory

Sources said a recent internal poll suggested Muscat’s candidacy would sway thousands of traditional PL supporters who claimed they would not vote.

But while acknowledging Muscat’s return could boost the party, MPs are aware it could land the PL in hot water, as an impending magisterial inquiry could lead to criminal action against the former prime minister.

Muscat was propelled back into the political limelight on Thursday after Labour pundit Manuel Cuschieri called for his return as an MEP candidate. That call sparked overwhelming support among hardcore supporters, with Muscat later confirming he was mulling a bid.

Meanwhile, Robert Abela made it clear he will not stand in Muscat’s way. If he forges ahead, it would be the return of a political heavyweight who fell from glory in 2019 during the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder probe and who has been dogged by claims of corruption since. 

Muscat giving his farewell speech in January 2020. Photo: Chris Sant FournierMuscat giving his farewell speech in January 2020. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

MPs who spoke to Times of Malta on condition of anonymity clarified that the party’s welcome should not be unconditional, especially if evidence of wrongdoing emerged against Muscat. But, as things stand, “the pluses would outweigh the minuses”, another said.

Labour MPs and delegates are well aware that the return of Muscat could undermine Abela, who succeeded him in 2020, and potentially deepen the cracks within the party.

“It would weaken Abela in a big way. But in reality, a lot of delegates are disappointed with the prime minister and crave Muscat. For a lot of them, he represents ‘l-aqwa żmien’ (the best of times), a nostalgic period when they felt they were doing really well.”

Another cabinet member said: “I’m not sure Abela should welcome him back. I’d rather win the election with 15,000 votes without Muscat, than win it with 50,000 and be forced to defend him in whatever controversy could erupt.”

Still, he said he would personally still welcome and support Muscat if he decided to run for election.

A lot of delegates are disappointed with the prime minister and crave Muscat

Another said he would have no objection to a Muscat candidature as long as Abela was comfortable with it, but admitted the issue is complicated. “While it may be politically expedient to allow him back, I don’t want Abela to suffer political consequences down the line,” he said.

“We could find ourselves in a situation with two leader figures in the party, and that could create conflicts that would harm Abela. I speak like this because Muscat is my friend and I respect him, but ultimately Abela is my boss and I’m loyal to him.”

Of the remaining 11 ministers and parliamentary secretaries, six refused to comment, one could not see a “plausible” Muscat candidature, and another said it was not his decision to make. Three cabinet members could not be reached for comment.

Magisterial inquiry

Sentiments could, however, change especially as a magisterial inquiry into Muscat’s dealings looms with weeks ticking to the election.

“And the inquiry’s not looking too good for Muscat,” said one source, referring to an investigation where the former prime minister is suspected of receiving kickbacks in connection with the hospitals’ privatisation deal.

One party official compared the development as Malta’s very own Donald Trump moment. The former US president will be making another bid for the White House despite facing multiple charges in court.

“If they come for you, you go for them.”

Clearly, Muscat is in charge of his own fate.

One source said: “For the time being he might be keeping his options open. All he needs to do is push the button. He’s too popular among Labour supporters and even cabinet members. At this stage, it’s all about leverage and rallying the troops.”

Muscat speaking in parliament in 2019.Muscat speaking in parliament in 2019.

While the PL was expected to get the majority of votes in June’s elections, MPs and officials have spoken about a party in labour, with different factions threatening to split the party which has been in government for almost 11 years.

“Despite his sins, at least you know where you stand with Muscat. With Abela, the disgruntled among us have become even more disgruntled. Everyone’s building sandbags and installing barbed wire.”

Sant 'no comment,' Rosianne Cutajar endorses Muscat

Contacted for a reaction, former prime minister and now MEP Alfred Sant would not comment.

On the other hand, former Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar was keen to endorse Muscat.

“I agree [that he should run for MEP] and I support him, no doubt. The party and the country needs him,” she said.

PL and the PES

But a Muscat bid and election could also potentially pit the Labour Party against the European Socialists (PES), EU experts have warned.

This comes especially after last October the PES suspended the membership of Smer and Hlas after the two Slovakian parties decided to enter into a coalition with a far-right party.

With polls showing PES candidates trailing across Europe, the last thing the Socialists need is a notorious candidate representing them, one expert said.

“Muscat is no longer welcome in the PES and his candidature and probable election could even potentially lead to the PL’s exclusion.”

Questions sent to PES leader Iratxe García Pérez and EU Parliament vice president Katarina Barley, who is also an S&D MEP, remained unanswered by the time of writing.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola did not comment about the potential bid. Instead, when contacted, a spokesperson sent a copy of the infamous 2019 photo showing Metsola refusing to shake Muscat’s hand.

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