I’ve never seen a party take MEP and local council elections so seriously. Labour have campaigned with such swivel-eyed zeal that I’m beginning to suspect they’re doing balloons for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Nationalist Party has tried to hit back with tales of abortion and cancer. But let’s leave the funny guys aside.

Power of incumbency doesn’t even begin to describe what’s been going on. The other day, the Prime Minister announced that one-off payments would be made to compensate thousands of civil servants who had suffered “anomalous or unfavourable situations” as far back as the 1970s. No matter if claims were legally baseless, because it was really a sense of ‘moral obligation’ that pricked and stung Joseph Muscat’s bosom. The timing? Last Friday, exactly on the eve of the elections.

Nor was there anything one-off about it, because the last couple of weeks have seen a mad scramble to promise, inaugurate, announce, launch and hand out – the five pillars of any government-funded election campaign.

On Tuesday, the national broadcaster told us that one of “Mrs Muscat’s dreams had come true” in the form of the NGO hub in Marsa. That same day, millions were handed over to sports organisations, stacks of cash earmarked to modernise health centres, and a scheme for lease and rent buyouts launched. The Gozo Ministry offered the owners of pleasure boats a free crane service. And so on.

The sky has been dark with ‘soft openings’ (a byword for ‘it’s nowhere near finished but let’s pretend it is’). Muscat and José Herrera somehow kept straight faces as they announced heavily forested open spaces without planting a single tree. The carnival villagers got their Carnival Village (on plan) and the creatives their Creativity Hub (ditto). And so on.

As far as Muscat (and, by crowd psychology, Labour) is concerned, this election is nothing but one gigantic vanity project

I especially loved the inaugurations of certain holes in the ground that may yet become buildings, probably in time for a second round of inaugurations a day or two before the next elections. Again, the national broadcaster did not disappoint: “Beda x-xogħol ta’ skavar’ (excavation works have started) we were told, as we looked at bulldozers, and Cabinet ministers in hard hats. Let’s say the government does not lack a sense of humour.

The rhetoric, too, has been relentless, savage and cynical. The gutter of gutters was plumbed last Monday, when Labour trotted out ‘black teenager’ Thea Mizzi to smile at and say nice things to Muscat in the wake of the Lassana Cisse murder case.

Hardly an exception, because the campaign has been about Joseph all along. The latest billboards do not even bother with the MEP candidates: they just zoom in on him and Photoshop some out-of-focus whoevers into the background. They may as well have gone for a triple portrait in the manner of van Dyck.

You get my drift. Labour’s frenzy makes the typical general election campaign look like an evening at the stamp collectors’ club. It helps that a good part of it is paid for out of our taxes.     

The curious thing is, none of it is really necessary. The two parties are not exactly neck and neck. Quite the contrary in fact: Labour would win the election even if the entire Cabinet took a gap year to travel the world, in Hawaiian shirts. Underdogs or not, there can’t possibly be a single person in the whole of Malta who believes that Labour’s majority will be anything but comfortable. Why then all the manic campaigning?

The predictable answer to that question is Joseph Muscat. Muscat has said many times that he is resolved to step down as Prime Minister in the near future. The petitions for him to stay on, the rhetoric of 10-year plans, and so on, are part of a choreographed grand spectacle of departure. If he does indeed bow out gracefully, it must be to rapturous applause.

As far as Muscat (and, by crowd psychology, Labour) is concerned, this election is nothing but one gigantic vanity project. Muscat has thrashed the Nationalist Party three times in a row. He evidently believes that he simply cannot afford to leave politics with anything but a fourth rout (‘tkaxkira’, delicately put) under his belt. As the billboards say, it’s really all about Joseph.

Now dissing other people’s ambitions is not my thing. Muscat’s obsession with his record of wins by knockout is no skin off my teeth. Except it is, for two reasons. First, because it has meant a campaign that seems to have lifted its language off a beer-crazed marċ ta’ filgħodu. To win doesn’t quite cut it: it’s how badly you crush your rivals that counts. It’s sickening, frankly.

Second, Muscat happens to be the Prime Minister. His obsessions, and the means by which he nourishes them, have a nasty habit of foisting themselves on us. The holes in the ground, the treeless forests and the soft non-openings are funded by sods like me who haven’t yet found a way of evading – sorry, avoiding – tax. It’s reassuring to wake up to the thought that a bit of your salary is helping the disadvantaged of society keel off the boating season.

There’s also the small detail of a European election that is not about the EU and a local council election that has nothing to do with local councils. It has taken Theresa May several months of grief to achieve Brexit, and she’s nowhere near. Muscat has done it in a couple of weeks. He’s made us the best in Europe at being not about Europe.

By the time you read this, Labour will be celebrating. Bully for them, but there really is nothing much to be ecstatic about. Unless your name is Joseph Muscat.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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